Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.
There are over 1.5 million words in the English language and it grows every day. Due to the ubiquity of English speaking people and the colonial influences, the language thrives by freely borrowing and adapting words from other languages. English words can take their origins not only from the traditional Greek, Latin, French and Spanish roots but also from diverse languages such as Arabic, Tamil, Polynesian, Native American and a multitude of other languages.
A child of 12 may carry a vocabulary of over 10,000 due to the steep learning that takes place at this age. As we get older, our vocabulary plateaus out. An average adult may only have around 25000 words in their possession unless they are professionals or have a passion for learning new words. Pursuing a profession further escalates the number of words in one’s vocabulary to 40,000. Professionals will have to learn a lot of new technical terminology as in computing, science, medicine, law etc. thus expanding their repertoire.
Passion for Words
The reason that one's vocabulary hits a plateau, is because we stop being curious about words. Words are magical, they tell stories of distant lands, adventures and thoughts from different cultures, religions and belief systems. They offer an insight into bygone times and have rich history and a window to the civilisation.
I’ve always been curious about words and how they came into be. Sometimes the backstory may be dire, but more often you hit a jackpot. There are curiosities and wonders, mysteries and magic, mirth and mayhem in how these words came to be. They tell tales of hard work and discovery, selflessness and sacrifice, war and peace, and journeys to long forgotten lands. We will learn History and Geography, Medicine and Mathematics, Science and Technology, Religion and Philosophy just by knowing some of the word stories.
In my quest to understand English words and to remember them I’ve come across many stories. I am going to share some with you... Hope it educates and entertains, or at the very least, makes you more curious about the words you use.
In learning these stories and their component ‘roots’, your vocabulary will expand and will be enhanced. As you may already know, the brain best remembers when a word has a back-story rather than memorise it by rote.
Long before John Dalton , English natural philosopher and scientific instructor, devised the atomic theory in 1803, the concept of the Atom has been discussed in ancient India in 600 BC. The Jain monks postulated that complex matter is made up of more simple units. The learning then travelled to Greece where in 450 BC, Leucippus who was a disciple of Democritus, coined the word for these units as ‘that which cannot be cut or sliced (further) – atomos ( Greek - ἄτομος ). ‘A; being a negative prefix and ‘tomos’ ( temnein- to cut open) meaning cut or slice.
The ‘Tomos’ from atom also puts in appearances in Anatomy ( ana: to separate from and ‘Temnein’ to cut open) the study of internal structured by cutting bodies open.
Some of you may have had a CT scan. This is an abbreviation of Computerised Tomographic Scan. And yes you guessed it right, it’s our old friend ‘Tomos’ to slice or cut that contributes to the ‘Tomography’ as it literally means pictures of slices! The CT Scan does show you sliced up sections of various organs.
If you really want to go out on a limb, I wonder if the ‘Tomohawk’ represents something to cut you open.
But I’ll stop while I am ahead.
You all know that the anaconda is a massive snake that could swallow its prey whole and is capable of stretching its mouth so wide by dislocating its own jawbone . It first wraps itself around the said prey and slowly squeezes the life out of it. Charming!
The Etymological origin of Anaconda is fascinating. Many scholars believe that this comes from Sinhalese or South Indian origins. In Tamil ( an indigenous language from South Indian state Tamil Nadu) - Aanai means elephant and kondran means killer. In Sinhalese Hena kandaya may refer to an extinct species of boa constrictor that used to crush baby elephants to death.
Now how did a Sinhalese or Tamil name travel to South America where the snake is indigenous to Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru – generally inhabiting the Andes and the Amazon Jungle.
The secret may be the Portuguese.
Portugal colonised some parts of the West coast of India and Srilanka long before the East India company got therein the 16th century. In fact Goa , a famous holiday resort on the same coasts boasts several Portuguese churches and the native cuisine is heavily influenced by Portuguese flavours. In fact, India only got chilli peppers from the Portuguese who brought it over from the Americas and planted them in South India. Prior to that Indian cuisine relied heavily on the indigenous black pepper for heat and spice.
There were a lot of Tamils from India who used to live and work in the plantations in Sri Lanka. Some Etymologists and Historians believe that the Portuguese may have transported some locals over to their new colonies in South America as labourers. The latter may have spotted the snake and thought it bore resemblances to their native elephant killer snake and would have taken that name from their own workers rather than from the natives. Hence, Aana- Kondran became Anaconda.
The word that describes the ruthless slaying of a powerful figure by a secret killer trained in those arts, takes it origin from the Arabic 'Hash shashin’. To get the origins you need to travel back to the Crusades: the harsh realities of religious warfare in the desert heat of the middle eastern lands. The sandstorms, the mountain passes of Iran and Iraq.
This word originally referred to the Nizari branch of Ismaili Shia who occupied many castles in the Alamut region of Iran during the middle ages. They enhanced their political machinations by ruthless assassinations of key Muslim figures and Christian Crusader elite.
The word takes its origin from Hashish – a paste like substance produced from Cannabis resin – and smoked in a hookah or a clay pipe. It is believed that the killers were under the influence of Hashish when they carried out their ruthless slayings – this kept them free of guilt or remorse . Hence ‘ Hash shashin’ become Assassin and now is a universal term for killer of a high ranking political figure.
Who would’ve thought that this acrid smelling gas owes its name to the shadowy Egyptian God Amun- Ra or Ammon. This key figure in Egyptian theology, he ruled the roost for many centuries, attracting millions of followers and encasing ancient Egypt in a complex universe of deities. Ammon was self created, and existed outside the pantheon of Egyptian Gods – he became so powerful at one stage to the point that he alone was worshipped as the supreme God and all other Gods became mere manifestations of him.
Now what has Ammon got to do with Ammonia? To this we need to go to Ancient Rome. The Romans ( much like the British later) were canny colonialists. They spread far and wide not only with their disciplined military might, their understanding of politics and diplomacy but also by freely adapting Pagan Gods and local mythology to their own end.
When they conquered Libya, Ammon quickly became Jupiter , a supreme Roman Deity and even took on the twin horns of a Ram appearance. They built a temple for Jupiter-Ammon in ancient Libya.
Near the temple they found natural deposits of a salt that they called ‘ Sal Ammoniacus’ due to its proximity to the Temple of Ammon. This salt was in fact ammonium chloride and was able to produce ammonia. The salt became important to Chemists during the middle ages, obsessed with alchemy and the transmutation of base metals into Gold using Mercury.
While this quest may have been futile, it created so many inventions and discoveries along the way and saw the birth of Chemistry from the middle ages to the modern times.
Despite all the modernisation, the name ‘Sal Ammoniacus’ stuck and hence, Ammonia.
No, this is not a celebration James Cameron’s billion dollar movie mammoth. This is merely a meditation of how and where the word avatar originated . In modern parlance it means ones ‘online- appearance’ or’ digital –incarnation’ .
The word actually comes from Sanskrit, the ancient language of India and Hinduism. In Hindu mythology the holy trinity is made of three deities, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma ( the Destroyer, Protector and Creator respectively). Vishnu , throughout the ages of humanity, takes several incarnations to help humanity and other deities . In fact, in Bhagavad- Gita the sacred Hindu test, Vishnu in his avatar as Krishna says to the warrior prince Arjun.
‘Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.
For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil,
and for the establishment of righteousness,
I come into being age after age’
This is an oft quoted Sankrit hymn from the Gita. It is powerful and creates an aura of safety that Vishnu will always be there to protect us. This concept of God in flesh or incarnation, is called Avatar.
It soon became adapted to versions of oneself online or in the case of the Cameron film, using a genetically engineered host body to transport oneself into. Who would’ve thought a Sanskrit word would travel so far.
And I will finish this hub (I hope I could do justice to all the letters of the alphabet this way- finding words with intriguing stories- an ambitious aim).
You may already know the root ‘Aster ’ means star. This combines with other roots to give us many words. Astronomy ( a study of labelling and naming stars in its inception), Astrology ( a study of stars and their movements) , Asterisk ( a little star!) ( this also the name of the famous French comic book character created by Goscinny and Uderzo .- Asterix ), Asteroids ( which means ‘star-like’ ). Even the beautiful ‘Aster’ flower is named so because it looks like a star.
But I wonder if you have considered the word Disaster . This also literally means ‘bad –star’( Dis- Aster) . The ancients believed that natural calamities are set upon humanity by the bad alignment of constellations and influencing our fate. This belief still exists in modern day as we study star signs to predict our daily fortunes!
I will sign off now, ardent and assiduous readers, because my ambivalent astrological advancement tells me that if I sit any more in front of my advanced abacus (PC!) without ambulating to accomplish my other tasks, I may be risking assassination!
I will see you with ‘B’.
Botulism? Benevolence? Bungee? Barbecue? Bridge?
Where will our quest take us next, I wonder.
Thank you for your kind attention.
Please Leave comments and suggestions and share with others if you liked what you have read.
Vocabulary & Etymology
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2010 Mohan Kumar
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on October 19, 2020:
Very nice article on the origin of these words. Well presented. Thanks.
Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on July 12, 2012:
Auspicious and Ambitious, I agree, Jaye. The word I have for the fellow hubbers like yourself who appreciate the work is A-MA-ZING! Thank you for reading this and leaving such a warm comment. Glad you enjoyed this.
Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on July 12, 2012:
AUSPICIOUS! That is the "A" word I use to describe your initial foray into the world of English words and the potential awaiting in the remaining alphabet. I look forward to the next installment of this intriguing series. I have no doubt, Docmo, that you will see it through to "Z", with a wealth of fascinating word back-stories awaiting your readers along the way. Your own adept use of the language in your writing provides an enjoyable reading experience.
Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on July 12, 2012:
Thank you Crystal, I am like you- I adore words and am a walking dictionary/thesaurus rolled into one. That's why I created this series to make it interesting to develop a vocabulary. I have done 9 of this so far from A-I- if you have time do dip into the others and tell me what you think. Really appreciate your visit!
mythicalstorm273 on July 12, 2012:
This was absolutely amazing! I love words! Although I do not practice finding new words to learn about, I read so much that I come across new words and then discover what they mean. My boyfriend sometimes say I am like a walking dictionary... only I don't talk like it! That is my one downfall. I can understand some pretty complex words because I have a deep interest in a strong vocabulary and of course the history of language and how it has developed! Thank you for sharing all of this! Some I already knew, but I did learn some as well and you did a wonderful job keeping it interesting and flowing!
Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on July 12, 2012:
Thank you Mary- much appreciated. This series is now at letter 'I' and I am preparing 'J' for publication soon. There are many stories in this series that I loved researching and sharing. It is delightful that you found this entertaining and educational- exactly my intent.
Mary Craig from New York on July 12, 2012:
Absolutely astounding hub as always! One that "educates and entertains"...you always manage to appropriate our imagination and align our thoughts with the addition of arbitrary information we can abscond with!
Can't wait for "b".
Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting and shared.
Excellent pictures as always! I especially like the 'words' hugging the girl!
Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on November 08, 2011:
Thank you very much. I am glad you also take off on an etymological tangent as that journey is rich with history and multiple possibilities. As you say teaching them to ' work out' what words mean is a skill for life... I also play word games with my kids - appreciate your visit and comments!
Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on November 06, 2011:
Fantastic Hub. I love words, language,literature. As it happens I teach history for a living, but all my students know that I may take off on an etymological tangent at any moment. One of my goals is to teach them about basic language roots, Greek, Latin, German so they can decipher most words with little to no help.
Within my family I am known as the "wort-meister" (in case German/Deutsche is not one of your languages - wordmaster). I didn't read fairy tales to my three sons, I played word games with them...still do, even though they now have families of their own. I will be back to read more Hubs. :)
P.S. Great accompanying pictures, graphics, etc.
Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on February 27, 2011:
Epi, thank you so much for your kind words. You inspire me more! I do feel like ET sometimes but only when I am staying up late like this watching the Oscars (its 4 am in UK) !I have already checked out and really enjoyed drbjs series and am continuing to read more of them... will check out Sligobay thanks for the recommendations.
epigramman on February 27, 2011:
...well I am so very proud of you - no one can put a hub like this together (and as a labour of love) as well as you! It's enlightening, enjoyable and vastly entertaining ......and if you think I am hub royalty then you must come (happily) from another planet - and we are blessed that you choose earth ......and hubpages!
Lucky readers we are ......... love the idea behind this too - very novel, very you - which makes you a creative anomaly and a hubtreasure.
As a footnote - check out DRBJ's interview series here at the Hub - and another great one - Sligobay - from Ireland!
Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on February 06, 2011:
Welcome back and it's good to have an appreciative reader. I can't wait to write the next one ... as always I end up learning too and its so much fun!
Feline Prophet on February 06, 2011:
Awestruck! Thank you for this enlightening hub - the origin of words has always fascinated me and I look forward to the rest of the alphabet.
Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on January 07, 2011:
japtaker, thanks for dropping by. I always enjoy your erudite articles. Etymology is something I have been extremely interested in for the same reasons- every word we use has such resonance and history and also has the potential to teach so much about our culture and civilisation. Hopefully my attempts at teasing some out will set people to rediscover this curiosity. Appreciate your comments.
Justin Aptaker from United States on January 07, 2011:
This is a truly excellent hub on a subject that I never tire of exploring. Etymology is one of my favorite things to do. I feel like our words are such an expression of the collective unconscious--excuse what might be a trite pop-Jungian reference, as it is the best way I know to express what I'm thinking. Every word has such a history, and has grown in such symbiosis with us, that language, to me, really contains much of what it means to be human. So before I go off and begin to write an entire article in response to your article, let me simply congratulate you on putting out some very precious information in an accessible and engaging way.
Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on December 19, 2010:
Thank you, I am delighted to share these stories that give me a buzz and enhanced my learning.. you are very kind with your appreciation.
richtwf on December 19, 2010:
An awesome and very interesting hub my friend. I love reading about the background behind words. Each word has a story in itself and it's great that you're sharing those stories here and illuminating these words for us to appreciate. I learnt a few useful things here and it's my pleasure to sit in your classroom! I look forward to the next lesson!
God bless you my friend!
Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on December 18, 2010:
Thanks Karen! I believe in ' If it needs doing- it is worth doing well' philosophy!
Karen Wodke from Midwest on December 18, 2010:
Very informative, well-researched, and well-written article!