Curiosity Corner: Curious Word Origins


Curiosity Corner


Dr. Jerry D. Wilson

Emeritus Professor of Physics

Lander University

I’m often curious about the origins of words. Here are some I hope you find interesting.

* Brogue: from the Irish Gaelic meaning “shoe.” In early Britain, this was a shoe made of untanned leather, worn by people in the far regions of Ireland and Scotland. (I remember we used to refer to big work shoes as brogans.) The term was applied to people with Irish accents, so they wore brogues on their feet and had a speech brogue.

* Cole slaw: from the Dutch “koolsla,” meaning cabbage salad.

* Dandelion: from the French “dent de lion,” meaning tooth of the lion and referring to the notched leaves of this plant (that grows all over my yard). Some people use the leaves in salads.

* Dollar: from the Dutch “daler” or German “Taler” (short for Joachimtaler, a coin minted in Bohemia in the 1500s).

* Gumbo (you know, the stew or soup with okra): from an African word “ochinggombo,” meaning okra. How about that, okra fans?

* Pajamas: from the Hindu “payjam a,” meaning leg garment, or light-weight trousers worn in the Near East. However, pajama tops were added to the current models.

* Malaria: from the Italian “mala aria,” meaning bad air. In the Middle Ages, they thought that this disease was caused by the smelly air in the vicinities of swamps and marshes. We know differently today.

* Mosquito: from the Spanish “mosquito,” meaning little fly. Well, we know about those little suckers. Fortunately, we don’t have the anopheles type that transmits malaria.

* Tofu: a Japanese word that has a Chinese background of “dou” and “fu,” meaning beans that have soured. This high-protein, cholesterol-free white curd is made from curdled soybeans.

* And, finally, for you Little Richard fans – Tutti frutti: from the Italian “tutti frutti,” meaning all fruits. As we know it, candied and chopped fruits or a fruit flavoring for ice cream. Ah, rootie.

C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): “I have never been hurt by anything I didn’t say.” —Calvin Coolidge

Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC 29649, or email Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. For Curiosity Corner background, go to

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