Weird Words – 5 surprising word origins you’d never guess

What does "soccer" really mean?
What does “soccer” really mean?

As a writer, I’ve always been interested in how language changes, develops and evolves. How words change their meaning because of the way we use them. How mishearings and grammar mistakes become part of the language because overuse leads people to forget that they’re errors. How entirely new words pop up because of new technologies and new ways of doing things.

Here are five weird word origins that highlight the peculiarity and sometimes absurdity of language development…

Nightmare

This originates from an old English word “mare”, which referred to a demon or goblin who suffocates you in your sleep. You can read about other dark and dismal word origins in my previous blog.

Laser

Sci-fi geeks will know that “Tardis” is an acronym for “Time And Relative Dimension In Space”. But who knew that “laser” actually stands for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”?

Nice

The word “nice” is one of the most promiscuous words in the English language, having acquired more meanings over the centuries than you can shake a stick at. It comes from the Latin word for “ignorant”, and has gone from meaning “foolish and stupid” to “timid” to “fussy” to “dainty and delicate” to “precise” to “delightful” and finally to “thoughtful, kind or pleasant”.

Tragedy

Today, a “tragedy” is an accident, crime or catastrophe that causes suffering and distress. In the late 14th century, “tragedy” meant a “play or serious literary work with an unhappy ending”.

Prior to the 14th century, “tragedy” meant “song of the goat”. Er—yes.

Soccer

Lots of people think of “soccer” as the American term for what Brits call “football”. As a matter of fact, “soccer” has its slightly preposterous origins in the UK.

The word originates from “socca”, which is actually old university slang for “association football”, the formal term for the sport. It’s an abbreviation of “association”, formed in a rather strange way—basically backwards. “Assoc” to “socca”. And since the word “association” has its own completely unrelated meaning, this bizarre shortening that’s now synonymous with the sport technically has nothing to do with it.

Are there any more weird word origins you can think of?

Take a gander at some of my earlier Weird Words articles, looking at mistakes that became new words, the influence of social media on language and the differences between UK and US English. 

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