The Origin of
Words and Names

Where Words Come From

The English language has developed from an Anglo-Saxon base of common words: household words, parts of the body, common animals, natural elements, most pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs. Other modern words in English have developed from five sources. These are discussed below.

Words Created From Nothing

Examples of words that have just appeared in the language out of nothing are byte, dog (replacing the earlier hund), donkey, jam, kick, log, googol, quasar and yuppie. The latter two are acronyms (words made from initials).

Shakespere coined over 1600 words including countless, critical, excellent, lonely, majestic, obscene.

From Ben Johnson we got damp, from Isaac Newton centrifugal and from Thomas More: explain and exact.

Words Created In Error

The vegetable pease was thought to be a plural so that the individual item in the pod was given the name pea. The verb laze was erroneously created from the adjective lazy. The word buttonhole was a mis-hearing of button-hold.

Borrowed and Adopted Words

English has borrowed words from a variety of sources and other languages. Three examples show this.


The name of the fruit was NARANJ in Sanskrit. This language was spoken in ancient India. Indians traded with Arabs, so the word passed into Arabic as NARANJAH. The Spaniards were ruled by north African Arabs who passed the fruit and word into Spanish as NARANJA (pronounced as NARANHA).

This came into English where the fruit was a NARANJ. Words ending in J are not common in English so the spelling quickly changed to a NARANGE.

The initial N moved to the a because of mis-hearing to give an ARANGE (this is called metanalysis).

Over time, the initial A became an O to give an ORANGE.


When the Spanish arrived in Mexico they came across the Aztecs. The Aztec language is called Nahuatl. The Aztecs had a drink which they made from a bean they called CHOCO (bitter). They would put this bean into water (ATL) to produce CHOCO-ATL (bitter water).

The TL sound is common in the Aztec language but not in Spanish. The Spaniards mispronounced the drink CHOCOLATO.

This drink was brought to Europe (with sugar added) where the pronunciation and spelling in English became CHOCOLATE.


This is a mathematical term. It comes from Arabic.

Mohammad al-Khwarizmi was a mathematician who flourished in Baghdad around the year 800. He wrote a book about the solving of equations. It was called ilm al-jabr wa'l muqabalah (the science of transposition and cancellation).

The term al-jabr from this title gave the English word, ALGEBRA.


This is a term in chess. It is from the Farsi language spoken in Iran and Afghanistan. The original phrase is SHAH-K-MATE (every syllable pronounced) which means "The King is Dead".

The word SHAH means a "king" as in the last monarch (or SHAH) of Iran. MATE has the same root as the English "murder" and the Spanish "matador" (killer).

The word came via French (where the SH became a CH) and into English where the MA-TE (two syllables) became MATE (one syllable) to give CHECKMATE.

Changes In Words

Many words used in modern English have changed their meaning over the years. This is shown in the table below.

Word Original Meaning
awfuldeserving of awe
bravecowardice (as in bravado)
counterfeitlegitimate copy
girlyoung person of either sex
guesstake aim
luxurysinful self indulgence
neck parcel of land (as in neck of the woods)
nuisanceinjury, harm
quickalive (as in quicksilver)
tellto count (as in bank teller)

The word silly meant blessed or happy in the 11th century going through pious, innocent, harmless, pitiable, feeble, feeble minded before finally ending up as foolish or stupid.

Pretty began as crafty then changed via clever, skilfully made, fine to beautiful.

Buxom began with the meaning obedient and changed via compliant, lively, plump to large breasted.

The word nice meant stupid and foolish in the late 13th Century. It went through a number of changes including wanton, extravagant, elegant, strange, modest, thin, and shy. By the middle of the 18th Century it had gained its current meaning of pleasant and agreeable.

Words are changing meaning now: consider how the words bad and gay have changed in recent years.

Words Created By Subtraction Or Addition

Words can be created by adding suffixes: -able, -ness, -ment. They can also be created by adding prefixes: dis-, anti-.

Examples include: sellable, brightness, pavement, disestablish, antimatter.

Words can be combined to form new words (air and port gave airport; land and mark to give landmark). Sometimes the combination can go in more than one way (houseboat, boathouse; bookcase, casebook).

Many common words have been shortened from the original term as in the table below.

Modern Word Original Form
busomnibus (Latin: for everyone)
mobmobile vulgus (Latin: fickle crowd)
petrolpetroleum (Greek: rock oil)

Metanalysis is the process where a letter is added or subtracted because of a nearby word. Examples below.

Modern Word Original Form
a nicknamean ekename
a newtan ewt
an addera nadder
an aprona napron
an orangea narange
an umpirea nonper

Where Surnames Come From

English and British surnames (family names) have four main sources: the person's occupation, the place of origin, a nickname and relations. Examples of these can be seen in the tables below.


Name Meaning
Archerbow and arrow user
Bishopbishop's man
Butchermeat worker
Carpenterwheel repairer
Fletcherarrow maker
Fullercloth cleaner
Millergrain grinder
Shepherdherder of sheep
Smithmetal worker


Name Origin
Devonshirean English county
Frenchfrom France
Lincolnan English city
Kentan English county
Prestonan English city
Scottfrom Scotland
Walshfrom Wales


Name Meaning
Armstrongstrong armed
Campbellcrooked mouth
Goldwaterurine (derogatory)
KennedyGaelic: ugly head
MorganWelsh: white haired
RussellFrench: red haired
Whistlerone who whistles
Whiteheadwhite headed


Name Meaning
Johnsonson of John
MacDonaldson of Donald (Scottish)
O'Connorson of Connor (Irish)
Robinsonson of Robin

Where First Names Come From

First names (given names in American English, a more accurate term) have many sources as can be seen in the tables below. Please note that the phrase first name may be ambiguous in some cultures (eg. Chinese) where the family name comes first. I do not use the term Christian name as it makes cultural assumptions.

There is a Search facility for finding names or meanings.

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A search engine that allows a search for First (Given) names.

Where Place Names Come From

The table below shows the historical influence of various languages in names of places and their derivations for the British Isles.

Source Language Meaning Modern Forms
acAnglo-Saxon oakAc-, Oak-, -ock
baileGaelic farm, villageBally-, Bal-
bearuAnglo-Saxon grove, woodBarrow-, -ber
beorgAnglo-Saxon burial moundBar-, -borough
brycgAnglo-Saxon bridgeBrig-, -bridge
burhAnglo-Saxon fortified placeBur-, -bury
burnaAnglo-Saxon stream, springBourn-, -burn(e)
byOld Norse farm, village-by
caerWelsh fortified placeCar-
ceasterLatin fort, Roman townChester-, -caster
cotAnglo-Saxon shelter, cottage-cot(e)
cwmWelsh deep valley-combe
daireGaelic oak wood-dare, -derry
dalrOld Norse valleyDal-, -dale
dennAnglo-Saxon swine pasture-dean, -den
dunAnglo-Saxon hill, downDun-, -down, -ton
eaAnglo-Saxon water, riverYa-, Ea-, -ey
egAnglo-Saxon islandEy-
eyOld Norse island-ey, -ay
gleannGaelic narrow valleyGlen-
grafAnglo-Saxon grove-grave, -grove
hamAnglo-Saxon homestead, villageHam-, -ham
hyrstAnglo-Saxon wooded hillHurst-, -hirst
-ingAnglo-Saxon place of ...-ing
leahAnglo-Saxon glade, clearingLeigh-, Lee-, -ley
lochGaelic lakeLoch-, -loch
mereAnglo-Saxon lake, poolMer-, Mar-, -mere, -more
nesOld Norse cape-ness
pwllWelsh anchorage, pool-pool
rhosWelsh moorlandRos(s)-, -rose
stanAnglo-Saxon stoneStan-, -stone
stedeAnglo-Saxon place, site-ste(a)d
stocAnglo-Saxon meeting placeStoke-, -stock
stowAnglo-Saxon meeting placeStow-, -stow(e)
straetLatin Roman roadStrat-, Stret-, -street
tunAnglo-Saxon enclosure, villageTon-, -town, -ton
thorpOld Norse farm, villageThorp-, -thorp(e)
thveitOld Norse glade, clearing-thwaite
wicAnglo-Saxon dwelling, farm-wick, -wich

© 2001, 2018 KryssTal

Books From and

KryssTal Related Pages

A short history of the world's most widespread language from its Anglo Saxon origins via Norman and Latin influences to Modern English.

A collection of words in the English language that were originally borrowed from other languages. The list features languages as diverse as Old Norse, Norman French, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hindi, Cree, Italian, Quechua, Malay and Ewe.

London is a collection of villages that sprang up and slowly amalgamated into the 1500 square kilometre city of the present. Here we look at the origin of place names in London.

External Links

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Name Origins
An excellent interactive site about the orgin and meaning of names.

Baby Names
Names (for babies) and their meanings.

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