Shortly after Thanksgiving, I was in the kitchen with a few co-workers when I brought up the subject of tryptophan poisoning (I was heating up homemade turkey soup). A colleague who happens to be vegetarian commented with, “Oh I wondered about that; I just thought my grandpa always took a nap after Thanksgiving dinner.” That led to another colleague’s response of “Isn’t that why plays that bomb on Broadway are called turkeys? Because they put people to sleep?”
And just like that, I found my blog topic.
I write for a living so why not write about words?
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Words can be fascinating and their origins, even more so. History tells us that the roots of the English language began when Germanic tribes migrated to Britain from the 5th to 11th centuries A.D. By that time, Latin and Old Norse (thanks, Vikings), and most especially, the Anglo-Norman French from the Norman Conquest in 1066, had begun playing a substantial role in the English lexicon.
Here, then, are some familiar words you might hear around the office and the history of their origins.
Deadline. That crazy deadline you’re facing? It’s not as dangerous compared to how the word came to be. During the Civil War, Confederate Captain Bowie wrote a report on the Andersonville, GA prison camp which detailed:
On the inside of the stockade and twenty feet from it there is a dead-line established, over which no prisoner is allowed to go, day or night, under penalty of being shot.
Early in the 19th century, “deadline” was used to denote a line on the printing press in which text would not print properly, and shortly thereafter, it referred to a time limit, specifically associated with newspaper lingo.
Salary. From the Latin salarium, meaning payment for salt. During ancient times, salt was considered “white gold,” due to its multi-functional uses; an antiseptic to treat wounds, a food preservative, and a method of payment. Egyptians paid their laborers with salt to preserve their food, and the Roman Empire continued to use salt as payment. Hence, the word “salary:” for that which was given to workers at the end of the working month.
Sandwich. John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich in the 18th century, had many vices, one of which was gambling. Not wanting to soil his hands with greasy food whilst he played cards, he asked for some beef served between two slices of bread. Others starting asking for “the same as Sandwich” and the ultimate lunchtime convenience was born.
Coffee. Your morning Joe was discovered circa the year 850 A.D. by an Ethiopian goatherder who noticed his goats acting strangely after eating certain berries. Upon trying them himself and getting excited by its effects, he and his fellow Arabs figured out how to dry and boil the berries. They called the brew “qahwah.” Qahwah traveled to Yemen where it was cultivated, to Turkey where it was roasted, then eventually to Europe, where the Italian caffe gave way to “coffee.”
Avocado. For all you millennials who love your avocado toast, the word “avocado” comes from Nahuati, an Aztec language, and means . . . wait for it . . . testicles. Apparently to the Aztecs, that’s what they looked like hanging in the trees.
Freelance. During medieval times, the word “free lance” referred to a mercenary who would fight for whoever paid them the most. In Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe” he writes:
I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, he refused them – I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders. . . “
So there you have it. Words with fascinating origins that help bring them to life.
Now, go forth and enjoy your coffee and avocado toast, and order a sandwich for lunch. Meet your deadlines with gusto if you want to increase your salary! Miss them, and you may end up freelancing.