The Origin of Words and Phrases

The origin and history of words (termed etymology) and, often more so, phrases is truly fascinating subject. Normal, everyday words that everyone uses can have quite a profound history and can sometimes be slightly more risqué that they first appear!

Unfortunately the vast majority of words come from compounds of Greek and Latin words such as various phobias (arachnophobia, claustrophobia, triskaidekaphobia etc.) and disciplines (psychology, biology, anthropology, etymology) which all stem from the Greek words phobos (φόβος - meaning fear) and -logia (-λογία - a suffix meaning 'study of') with various other Greek nouns attached.

There are, however, a fair few words with far more complex origins and many, many phrases too; although near impossible to list them all, this article is intended to detail just a few of the more interesting and common ones, but should you wish to know more, there's plenty around elsewhere on the internet!


Assassin (one who kills a prominent person or a professional who is hired to kill someone) - During the crusades in the middle ages, a Muslim sect called 'al-da'wa al-jadīda' (The new call to conversion) made it their duty to intimidate, terrorise and kill the crusaders. The actual word 'assassin' comes from the fact that they often performed these acts under the influence of hashish (a form of cannabis) and were hence referred to as the 'hashshashins' ('hashish user" - kinda sounds like Sean Connery saying 'assassins') which has since evolved into the word 'assassin'.

Hazard (danger, to risk, or expose to danger) - Again originating in the crusades, it's an evolution of the Arabic 'al zahr' ("the dice") which was used to refer to a series of dice-based games learnt by the crusaders. It gained its present-day meaning as a result of the risks of gambling on these games. The Spanish and French words 'azar' and 'hazard' respectively simply mean 'chance' and unsurprisingly stem from the Arabic too.

Tantalise (to tempt or tease someone with a desired object but not give it to them) - Originating from the Greek mythological character Tantalus (Τάνταλος) who, having stolen the food and drink of the gods, cut up his son and served him as food to them to say sorry (because for some words just aren't enough). It was either the act of killing his son or his cooking, but Tantalus got sent to Tartarus (the part of the underworld where punishments are carried out) and was forced to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree - but whenever he bent down to drink the water would recede and when he reached for the fruit the branches would move out of his reach.

Quarantine (the isolation of diseased people so as to prevent its spread) - From the French word 'quarantaine' ('about forty') as ships coming to port with diseased crews were forced to remain in isolation from the shore for a period of forty days.


Face the music - Traditionally drums were played during British military court marshals.

Flash in the pan - From the gold rush when people, while panning for gold, would see a glint in their pan but would later realise that it was nothing.

Jack of all trades, master of none - The 'master of none' part was added later, but the phrase 'Jack of all trades' has been around since the 17th century where 'Jack' was simply a term for a man. The term jack originates from a 14th century peasants' revolt in France during the hundred years war called the Jacquerie as the peasants all wore fairly makeshift armour called 'jacque' consisting of metal plates sewn between layers of felt or canvas - as a result of which peasants were referred to as 'Jacque' (or Jacques Bonhomme) by the nobles which was then adopted in England in the form of 'Jack'.

Mad as a hatter - Made famous by Alice in Wonderland, this phrase comes from the inhalation of fumes from the mercury used to cure furs for hats which would send the hat makers - or hatters - mad after a while.

Off the cuff - From the practise of writing speech notes on one's shirt sleeve

Passing the buck - In card games a buck is a marker used to indicate the player that is dealing. When the buck is passed to the next player, so is the responsibility of dealing.

Peeping Tom - In the 11th century a noblewoman named Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry, England, to gain a remission from her husband's harsh taxation of the city. Having asked the people of Coventry to close their doors and shutters and not look while she did so; one person, however - a tailor named Tom - is believed to have looked, and so the phrase was born.

Raining cats and dogs - Back in the 17th century, very heavy rain would cause dead rodents that lived in the thatched roofing of houses to be dislodged and to fall into the street. The notion of it raining cats and dogs is simply and exaggeration.

Spick and span - Spick is an old word for a nail or spike, and span is a wooden chip. So when a ship was brand new everything - even spick and span - was perfectly clean.

The wrong end of the stick - As far back as roman times, in the latrines instead of toilet paper there was a wooden stick with a sponge at one end, so if you were pick it up from the wrong end... well... the rest is rather self-explanatory!

To be stumped - Many assume it's some form of cricket reference, however, in reality, it arose from when railway tracks were being laid down, and the subsequent troubles associated with removing tree stumps that were in the way.

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Comments 5 comments

Pacal Votan 7 years ago

Mad as a hatter - I always wondered where this one came from. Thanks, Sasha.

\Brenda Scully 7 years ago

very interesting well done, i enjoyed that hub...

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tantrum 7 years ago from Tropic of Capricorn

Very good hub !! You should do part 2. thanks !

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Robwrite 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

Great stuff. Very informative. I love learning the etymology of words and phrases. Thanks for this.

a1 sause 3 years ago

hey guys what greek or latin words are in arachnophobia

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