Modern English is rich in words derived from sources as diverse as classical Latin and Greek, Indonesian and other Asian languages, European mythology and religion, and the popular culture of many times and places. In this survey of the origins of several hundred familiar English words, linguist Robert Gorrell explores the myriad ways our language has been shaped by successive conquests of Britain by the Romans, Germanic tribes, and Normans; by borrowings from Greek (which followed the spread of Christianity into the British Isles), Arabic, Native American languages, French, and others; and by the spread of British conquerors, colonists, and merchants around the world. Other words are derived from myths and legends, such as aphrodisiac from the Greek goddess Aphrodite and maudlin from medieval depictions of Mary Magdalene as a weeping, teary-eyed figure. Still other words originated in cultural practices, such as bootleg from the Prohibition practice of sellers carrying bottles of illegal liquor hidden in their high boots, or from the combination of older elements to meet new needs, such as helicopter from the Greek words helix (a spiral) and pterion (wing).
Robert Gorrell is professor emeritus of English at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including Modern English Handbook and Watch Your Language! Mother Tongue and Her Wayward Children (see page 23). His weekly newspaper column Straight Talk was published in the Reno Gazette-Journal for thirteen years. He is the recipient of numerous distinguished service awards from the University of Nevada, Reno, the Nevada Humanities Committee, and the University of Nevada Alumni Association.