Government of Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Exploring Etymology—U to Z

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: Italian ombrella, diminutive of ombra (shadow) from the Latin umbra
Note: An umbrella was originally a sunshade but took on the meaning of "protector against rain" in Britain because of its climate.
Expression: umbrella organization (a formal association of smaller organizations for mutual benefit)


Origin: Dutch op (up) roer (movement), originally "uprising" or "riot"
Note: The meaning "noisy shouting" emerged in the early 16th century.


Origin: Latin urbanus, a derivative of urbs (city)
Related words: urbanite, urbanize, suburb, suburbia
Expressions: urban renewal, urban legend


Origin: Old French usurper from Latin usurpare, from usus (use) + rapere (seize), literally "seize for one's own use"
Definition: seize by force; assume unlawfully


Origin: Greek ou (not) + topos (place), coined by Sir Thomas Moore as the title of his 1516 book about an imaginary island whose inhabitants enjoy social and political perfection
Note: Utopia was first used as a general term for "perfect place" in the 17th century.
Related word: utopian
Note: Utopia can be either upper- or lower-cased.



Origin: Adapted from the Latin vaccinus (of a cow) by British physician Jenner in the terms vaccine disease (cowpox) and vaccine inoculation (technique for injecting people with cowpox to prevent smallpox)
Note: Although the verb vaccinate dates to the early 19th century, vaccine was not used as a noun meaning "inoculated material" until 1840.


Origin: French vampire from Hungarian vampir from Russian upir from Kazan Tatar (language spoken east of Moscow) ubyr (witch)
Note: The term vampire was first applied to a species of blood-sucking bats in the 18th century by French biologist Buffon.
Related word: vamp (short for vampire), meaning "seductive woman"


Origin: From the name of a Germanic people, the Vandals, who ravaged Rome, from the Germanic Wandal (wanderer)
Related words: vandalism, vandalize


Origin: Hindi varanda from the same word in Portuguese (long balcony or terrace)
Note: Until the 19th century, veranda referred only to a feature on buildings in India.


Origin: French vermout from German wermut (wormwood)
Note: Vermouth was originally flavoured with wormwood, a bitter-tasting plant.



Origin: Old English wealh-hnutu (foreign nut), referring to the fact that the walnut was not native to England and was regarded as an exotic import
Note: The first element wealh is also the root for Wales and Welsh (people of Celtic origin) and Walloon (people of Gaulish origin), both considered to be foreigners by the Anglo-Saxons.


Origin: Old English weddung (state of being wed) from the verb wed (to pledge) from Germanic wathjojan, source of "wager"
Related word: wedlock, from wed + lac (action of), literally "act of pledging"


Origin: Old English Wodnesdaeg (day of Woden, a Germanic god) from Latin Mercurii dies (day of Mercury, a Roman god)


Origin: Short for periwig, a variant of peruke, from the French perruque from the Italian perrucca
Expression: bigwig, meaning "important person," referring to the large wigs formerly worn by men of importance


Origin: Old Norse vind (wind) + auga (eye), literally an eye-like opening to let air in
Expression: window shopping (1922)



Origin: Greek xenos (foreign, stranger) + phobos (fear)
Definition: profound dislike of foreigners

Xerox (n.), xerox (v.)

Origin: Term coined in 1948 by Haloid Co. for a copying machine, from the Greek xeros (dry) + ography (as in photography), literally "photographic duplication without liquid"; shortened to Xerox in 1952
Note: The verb xerox is lower-cased and dates to 1965.


Origin: Greek xulon (wood) + phone (sound)
Note: Xylophone was coined in 1860.
Related word: xylophonist


Origin: Abbreviation for "Christmas," with X representing the letter chi of the Greek Khristos (Christ)



Origin: Dutch jaghte, short for jaghtschip (chase ship, fast pirate ship), from jagen (hunt, chase) + schip (ship)
Related word: yachtie (a person who sails yachts)


Origin: Old English geolu, geolo from West Germanic
Related word: yolk, meaning "yellow substance"


Origin: Hindustani from Sanskrit yoga (union)


Origin: Turkish yoghurt, in which the g is a soft sound
Spelling variants: yoghurt, yogurt


Origin: Old English geol, related to Old Norse jol (mid-winter festival), later applied to "Christmas"
Note: Yule is short for yuletide (the Christmas festival).
Related word: yule log (log burned on Christmas eve or log-shaped cake eaten at Christmas)


Origin: Acronym derived from the initial letters of "young urban professional"
Definition: young, affluent, middle-class professional focused on career and the latest trends (usually derogatory)
Note: The term yuppie dates to 1984, when it ousted yumpie (young upwardly mobile people) and yap (young aspiring professional). By 1985, yuppie was considered to be an insult.



Origin: French zani from Italian Zanni, the Venetian variant of Gianni, which is the diminutive of Giovanni. Zanni was the name of a clown-like character in the old Italian commedia dell'arte.
Note: The adjective zany (ridiculous, buffoon-like or foolish) dates to the mid-19th century.


Origin: Italian zebra from Portuguese, originally applied to a now-extinct wild donkey of Congolese origin


Origin: Old French cenit and Old Spanish zenit from Arabic samt arras (path over the head)
Definition: a point on the celestial sphere directly above an observer; culmination, peak
Example: Frida Kahlo's solo exhibition in New York was the zenith of her career.


Origin: French zéphyr or Latin zephyrus from Greek zephuros (the west wind—sometimes personified as a god)
Definition: mild, gentle breeze or wind


Origin: Old Spanish zero and Old French zéro from Arabic sifr (empty)
Note: The sense "worthless person" dates to 1813.
Expressions: zero tolerance (policy of punishing all infractions, no matter how minor); zero in on (take aim at, focus attention on)


Origin: Kikongo (West African language) zumbi (fetish), originally the name of a snake god in the voodoo cult of West Africa
Note: The sense "dull or exceedingly tired person" dates to the 1930s.
Note: Zombie is also the name of a cocktail consisting of rum, fruit juice and sugar.