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Exploring Etymology—M to P

If you've ever wondered about the origins of the English language, you're not alone. Etymology—the study of word origins—is not just for lexicographers and Latin professors. Exploring Etymology traces the history of certain English words and provides pointers, related words and interesting facts. Some words you may use every day, while others may not seem as familiar.



Origin: Russian mammot (earth) referring to the animal's remains, which were dug out of the soil
Note: The adjective mammoth dates to the early 19th century.
Example: That is one mammoth burger! It'll take you two days to eat it.


Origin: Anglo-Norman megre from Old French maigre from Latin macer (thin)
Related word: emaciate
Note: The sense "lacking in amount, quality or fullness" dates to the 16th century.


Origin: Abenaki mos, linked with the Narragansett moosu (he strips), referring to the animal's habit of stripping bark from trees
Note: The plural form of moose does not take an s.
Example: Three moose crossed the road.


Origin: Old French mort (dead) + gage (pledge) from the notion that a pledge or deal dies either when the debt is paid or the mortgagor fails to pay
Note: The modern French term for mortgage is hypothèque and is sometimes translated into Canadian English as hypothec in Quebec legal contexts.
Related words: gage, wage


Origin: Old French moustarde from Latin mustum (new wine), referring to the original main ingredient in mustard
Note: The colour mustard (yellow) dates to the mid-19th century.
Note: Mustard gas does not contain mustard but is so called because of its colour and smell.
Related word: must in the sense of "grape juice before or during fermentation"



Origin: Greek nausia (seasickness) from naus (ship)
Related words: nautical, naval


Origin: Old English neah (near) + gebur (dweller)
Note: The derivative neighbourhood dates to the 15th century, and the verb to neighbour (adjoin, border on) dates to the late 18th century.
Example: Egypt neighbours upon Libya to the west.
Expression: Neighbourhood Watch (an anti-crime program in which citizens protect their own and their neighbours’ properties)


Origin: Italian nepotismo from nepote (nephew)
Definition: favouritism shown to relatives in giving employment, privileges, etc.


Origin: French nonchalant, from non + present participle of the verb chaloir (be concerned)
Related words: calorie, cauldron
Note: Chaloir stems from the Latin calere (be hot), giving us the related words above.


Origin: Latin nona, short for nona hora (ninth hour), referring to the ninth hour of daylight in Roman times, when church prayers began
Note: The meaning of noon first shifted in the 12th century to mean "midday meal." In the 13th century, noon simply meant "midday."



Origin: Latin obstetricius, a derivative of obstetrix (midwife) from obstare (stand in the way)
Definition: of or related to pregnancy, childbirth and other associated processes
Example: Etymologically speaking, an obstetric nurse assists a woman giving birth by standing before her.
Related words: obstacle, oust, stand


Origin: Latin oliva from Greek elaia, from which elaion (oil) is derived
Note: Before olive entered the English language, it was called eleberge (oil berry), indicating the olive's main economic role as a source of oil.


Origin: Swedish from Old Norse umbothsmathr (administration man)
Definition: investigator of complaints against public authorities
Note: New Zealand was the first English-speaking country to use ombudsman in the 1960s.
Gender-neutral term: ombudsperson


Origin: French omelette from amelette (thin sheet of metal), an alteration of alumette. The food is so called because of its flat shape.
Spelling variant: omelet
Proverb: You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. (It is difficult to achieve something important without causing any negative or unpleasant effects.)


Origin: Malay orang (man) + utan (jungle, wild), literally "man of the jungle" or "wild man"
Spelling variants: orang-utan, orangutang



Origin: Greek prefix pan (all) + daímon (demon), meaning "place of all demons"
Note: Pandemonium was coined by John Milton in his poem Paradise Lost (1667) as the name of the capital of Hell. The modern English use of pandemonium for “uproar” dates to the mid-19th century.
Example: There was pandemonium in the streets after the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.


Origin: Latin placebo (first person future singular of the verb placere) meaning "I will please"
Definition: a pill or medicine used for psychological reasons but having no direct physiological effect
Expression: placebo effect


Origin: Latin pomum granatum (many-seeded apple)
Related words: grenade (early grenades looked like pomegranates); pomade (the ointment was apple-scented)


Origin: Sanskrit pandita (learned)
Note: The broader English sense "expert in a specific field who is often called on to give an opinion" dates to the mid-19th century.


Origin: Urdu paejama from Persian pae (leg) + Hindu jama (clothing)
Note: While pyjamas is a plural noun, pyjama can be used attributively.
Example: He wore pyjama pants to bed.
Spelling variant: pajamas (especially in the United States)