Some Peculiar Etymological Ventures into the English Language


Welcome! Here I’m going to spout some perhaps wordy, yet rather interesting, insight about the rich and peculiar history of some of the English language’s most distinctively outlandish words; prepared to be linguistically ENLIGHTENED.


A sad reality I’m sure all us uni students can empathise with are the days of unquenchable inertia and indefatigable procrastination that seem to be inevitably included within the two in one bundle of hangover and headaches. Progress of any kind seems hopeless as you awake from your 2pm slumber with the impression that today is just another one of those days of backwardness and unproductivity. A word quite apt in this sense is ‘arsleing’. A dialect word found in the areas of Yorkshire and Lancashire, it’s origin has been suspected to rest in the Dutch aarzelen, which itself derives from aars meaning ‘backside’ and bears the sense of retreat (though the implications of fleeing back to bed with some Netflix was attached a little later). ‘Arseling’ in fact carries various similar meanings such as sitting restlessly, wandering aimlessly, and, of course, moving backwards- a pithy, inventive verb to convey you’re moving absolutely nowhere in your state of inebriated recovery. 


The marvelouslly onomateopeic ‘serendipity’, which is often selected as English-speakers’ favourite word alongside the ever-closley contensting uhh… ‘nincompoop’ and ‘discombobulate’ (I like to think I’m not the only one a little disappointed in our country with these two as reigning champs), can be defined as the making of happy, unexpected discoveries completely by accident. Created by writer and politician Horace Walpole, it’s actually based on the title of a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, in which the protagonists ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’. Serendip itself actually contributes little, at least semantically, to the meaning, despite being the root of the word, as it was an Old Persian name for Ceylon- modern day Sri Lanka. Regarding its etymology, it is said to come from the Sanskrit Siṃhaladvīpa, ‘Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island’- quite a ferocious origin for a word so pleasantly addictive you can’t help but murmur it to yourself at least a couple times.


You’re bound to meet a few of these during your university journey… I’m sure most of us have come across at least one person who takes absolutely unbridled euphoria, to your displeasure, in talking about a subject they seemingly know completely nothing about. Originating from a classical story of a man who ambitiously decided to provide comment on matters far beyond his expertise, the story goes that there was an unnamed cobbler who, while observing a painting by the ancient Greek artist Apelles vainly criticised the depiction of a sandal in the artwork, believing it to be missing a loop. The madman didn’t stop there however, he then proceeded to criticise not just the shoe, but the subject’s leg as well. Apelles, most likely in a state between disbelief and amusement, in the fact that this mere cobbler had now began to so furiously deconstruct his artwork simply retorted ne ultra crepidam meaning ‘not beyond the sandal’ thereby giving way to the word ‘ultracrepidarian’: someone that provides opinions of matters far exceeding their own knowledge or competency. 

I hope you’ve found this article somewhat interesting and that it propels you to go and uncover some more of the strange yet fantastically fascinating linguistic curiosities that hide within our language!

Some literature I’d really recommend  if you’re interested in this stuff:

-Dents’ Modern Tribes (by Susie Dent), Humble Pie and Cold Turkey (by Caroline Taggart), A Little Book of Language (by David Crystal), Red Herrings and White Elephants (by Albert Jack), Word Nerd (by Michael Powell), Metaphors Be With You (by Dr. Mardy Grothe) and The Unfolding of Language (by Guy Deutscher). The ‘Somethin’ Rhymes with Purple’ podcast is also a brilliantly enlightening (and certainly entertaining) piece of media I’d more than recommend.

Many thanks!


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