ENGLISH WORDS WITH INTERESTING BACKSTORIES➕

I love words. And I especially love words that came to us in interesting ways. Here are some of my favorites.
  1. Bedlam
    Bedlam, meaning a scene of uproar and confusion, comes from the 14th century British insane asylum called Bedlam Hospital, a colloquial pronunciation of Bethlehem Hospital, a place notorious for chaos and poverty.
  2. Odyssey
    You would be forgiven for thinking that The Odyssey is called The Odyssey because it is a story about a great odyssey. But you'd be wrong. It's called that because it is the story of Odysseus, and has had that name since long before English existed. The English word "odyssey" comes from the title of this epic poem, not the other way around.
  3. Mentor
    Speaking of The Odyssey, remember how Telemachus was helped along the way by his pal Mentor? That's not a translation either. The guy's name, in Greek, was Mentōr. Our word comes from a fictional character. If you are someone's mentor you are figuratively acting as Mentōr to their Telemachus.
  4. Check, as in "Check yourself"
    I always assumed when you put your opponent in "check" in chess, it was called that because "check" means to stop or slow the progress of something. Turns out that's backwards. We get that meaning of check *from* the game of chess, which existed, check and all, before the English language.
  5. Violin and Viola
    The dictionary defines "Viola" as "an instrument in the violin family, larger." And the derivation of "violin" is "diminutive of viola." I love this weirdness.
  6. Arugula / Rocket
    In America we call this spicy green "arugula". In England it is called "rocket". No, this isn't because Americans like to do their own thing. The plant is ancient and comes from Italy originally. In Latin it was "Eruca". This became "Roquette" in French. England gets the name rocket from the French. There was no transporting of fresh greens across the Atlantic back then. America discovered this green in the late 1800s by way of Italian immigrants who called it arugula.
  7. Panic
    From the Greek Panikon meaning "of Pan"; Pan being the satyr God of the wild. Perhaps from the sense of fear we feel in the wild when we hear animal noises and become panicked. I love thinking of a phrase like "panic attack" as having the same grammatical form as "scientific journal": An attack of the great god Pan (who apparently is not dead).
  8. Museum
    From the Greek mouseion meaning a shrine to the muses (like pantheon is a shrine to all gods). A generic word today, it was originally "the" museum, a library built to honor the muses, inspirers of art, music, and poetry.