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7 Surprising Word Origins

You use these words on a regular basis, but their etymology may surprise you.

1. Addict

Under ancient Roman law, addiction referred to the legal surrendering of an individual as a slave to a master. Ultimately, the term addict became associated with habitual behavior that made a person a slave to something else; this included the craving of substances such as drugs or alcohol.

2. Carat

Carat, the standard unit of weight for precious stones, derives from the Greek word for carob seeds, “keraton.” Apparently, fully grown carob seeds have a consistent weight from seed to seed (approximately 200mg), which made them a handy item to determine the weight of small objects, such as diamonds, on a balance scale.

3. Cell

After examining plant matter under a microscope, early modern scientist Robert Hooke coined the word cell to refer to the smallest unit of life because plants’ cellular structure resembled monks’ cells (living quarters) in a monastery.

4. Ketchup

Although we commonly think of ketchup as a tomato product, historically the term derives from a Chinese fish sauce called ke-tsiap. English travelers likely brought the recipe back from Malaysia. By the mid-eighteenth century, “ketchup” or “catsup” was a common staple in Britain and its American colonies. Tomatoes weren’t part of the recipe until the 1790s, partly due to a common English/American belief that tomatoes were unsuitable for human consumption.

5. Robot

Robot derives from the Czech word “robota,” meaning “forced labor” and “slavery,” or “robotnik,” the Czech word for serfs. 1923 English translations of Karl Capek’s science fiction thriller, R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), popularized the term. In R. U. R., machines take over the world and implant circuits into humans, transforming them into mindless “robot” slaves. Prior to “robot,” people tended to use the word “automaton” to describe quasi-autonomous machines.

6. Sabotage

One proposed origin for the term sabotage concerns the behavior of French Luddites during the Industrial Revolution. Fearful that the new technology would make artisans obsolete, workers supposedly threw their wooden clogs, sabots, at power looms hoping to jam the machinery — hence, “sabotage.” Etymologists and historians alternatively have suggested that the term sabotage derives from the noise made by the clattering of sabots, which made walking stealthily difficult. Sabotage came to refer to disrupting noises, then more generally, a deliberate attempt to ruin something.

7. Spooning

Used primarily in a romantic sense these days, spooning is an arrangement of people that visually resembles nested spoons. Eighteenth-century slave traders used the term to describe a specific slave packing arrangement when boarding African slaves on ships to cross the Middle Passage.

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