Word history is often full of twists and turns

Published 7:07 pm Friday, October 25, 2019

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As someone who enjoys linguistics, etymology has always been fascinating to me. Etymology is the study of the origin of words (and shouldn’t be confused with “entomology,” which is the study of insects). Some words have particularly strange and crazy origins, their histories twisting and turning like a very tangled knot.

While browsing NPR’s website recently, I stumbled across an article about the origins of the word “gung-ho.” We’re familiar with the word as describing someone’s abundance of enthusiasm, like “this person is really gung-ho about that new idea!”

As it turns out, the word’s meaning as we know it in English is based on a complete mistranslation that persisted for decades. In the original Chinese, the word simply means “industrial cooperative,” named after a small movement to help factory workers in the 1930’s. According to the NPR article, it was an American Marine visiting China who mistakenly believed the term meant something about teamwork and working in harmony. In his battalion, the “gung-ho” term caught on. They started naming everything “gung-ho” including their jackets, knives, and even their camps.

Over time, the word took on the meaning it has today. Crazy how language works like that, huh?

Curious, I ended up looking through several more NPR articles with similar topics just to see what I could uncover. Here are a few more terms with interesting histories:

“Go Dutch” is a phrase we use when we want to split the bill with our friends on something. The origin apparently stretches back to the 1600s when the English and the Dutch were often at war with each other. Plenty of negative idioms about the Dutch started popping up in English conversations. And in English society it was rude to invite someone to eat but not pay for their meal, hence why splitting the check was frowned upon. Even after the wars ended, phrases like “go Dutch” lingered.

Living in the rural middle of nowhere, most people have probably heard the word “podunk” describing a small, uninteresting town. Mark Twain even used the word all the way back in 1869. According to NPR, there are actually several towns legitimately named Podunk. (They’re in Connecticut, New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts.) Research shows that “podunk” is an Algonquian word, though the meaning of it has been lost over time.

The word “swagger” pops up in a lot of hip-hop lyrics these days, often as a way for a rapper to confidently and arrogantly express pride in himself. But the first person to write this word down was the famous wordsmith himself: William Shakespeare, using it in plays including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Henry IV, Part 2.” Though words can easily morph their meanings over the years, this one has been pretty consistent about its arrogant connotations.

Lastly, there’s the word “trifling” (often pronounced without the “g” on the end) which I love to use when talking about frustrating people. This word traces its history back at least as far as the 1500’s, even as a translated Bible passage from 1 Timothy. Over the years, the word has especially been used in Blues lyrics (to describe frustrating, lazy, worthless men or women). Apparently, these days it’s mostly used here in South, which was surprising to me, because it’s such a great word I think everyone can use. It certainly makes me feel better to write someone off as “trifling.”

Language is always evolving each day, often in ways we don’t even notice or realize. Pretty cool, right? To read about the etymologies of plenty of other words, check out NPR’s “code switch: word watch” series.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.