Language Lab
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Language Lab

Find Hidden Storytellers in Every Word

Boredom buster: quarantine words edition

We tell stories. It’s part of who we are as people and societies — now and in the past.

More than 35,000 years ago, an ancient storyteller picked up a piece of charcoal and drew a bison on the wall of a cave in what is now Spain.

By Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez, CC BY-SA 3.0

Today, we’re still telling stories. They’re everywhere. We tell stories about:

  • Where we live and how we got here.
  • How we’ve spent this quarantine.
  • How nobody will mute themselves at the right time on Zoom calls.

And more.

We All Tell Stories

I’m a writer. I tell stories.

But, I didn’t appreciate the history hidden in our words until I studied languages.

Words are our clues and connections to the past. They’re like ghosts hovering over us, whispering, but we’re not aware that they’re there.

The histories hidden in our words are just waiting for us to find them, like Easter eggs in a movie or a video game.

They’re there for us when we’re bored, when our WiFi goes down, when we’re not on video for a Zoom call.

All you need to know is where to look. Once I learned to look at words, really examine them, I found some really interesting stories.

These five all share the COVID-19 crisis as their theme:


The story: Distancing, and distance, both come from Middle English and, earlier, from the Old French word destance, which meant a fight or quarrel. Our word takes its meaning from the Latin distantia, which came before all that and meant “to be separate or standing apart.” So, this world traveler of a word has had the same meaning and has looked about the same since the days when people still spoke Latin.

A 21st-century take: More interesting than this word’s history is its travel through long-ago societies. Out of the Roman Empire, distance traveled to Gaul — later France — and came to English via the French of the Norman invaders who overthrew the Anglo-Saxon crown in 1066.

Changes to the English language introduced by the Norman invaders were so far-reaching that movements have emerged over the years to ‘re-English’ English by removing words like remove, which is of French origin. The word vocabulary is of foreign origin too. Language purists have proposed replacing it with the much more Anglo-Saxon-sounding wordstock.


The story: Look at the word quarantine and you see the ‘quar’ that we see in other words like quarter or quartet. If you guessed that quarantine has something to do with the number four, you’d be right. Back during the 14th-century’s Black Death, Venetian ports began making ships wait 40 days before docking in Venice — just to make sure no plague was aboard. Quarantine comes from the Italian words for 40 days — quaranta giorni.

A 21st-century take: This quarantine of 2020 has lasted more than 40 days, but the original sense of the word morphed sometime in the late 17th century to mean an isolation period of any length.


The story: Nightmares steal our breath away, sometimes literally. In the original Old English sense, the word ‘mare’ meant a demon or succubus — an evil female devil who came in the night and ‘rode’ sleeping men, stealing their breath. As it goes, the men would then wake up from their nightmares, scared and breathless, suffocating and struggling to breathe.

A 21st-century take: Husbands of the past may have blamed their infidelities on beautiful evil demons who swept through open windows to hold them down and overcome them. But, it’s more likely that they just didn’t understand sleep paralysis and near-dream-state hallucinations, right?

Image by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay


The story: Like distancing, the word tragedy came from Old French and Latin before that. But, the original word came from Greek, tragodia. Turns out tragodia means the same as tragedy, a drama with an unhappy end, even though the literal translation is “goat song.”

A 21st-century take: No one alive today really knows what goat songs have to do with tragedies, but that hasn’t stopped people from guessing. While some think that ancient Greeks sacrificed goats to the gods during plays, others think the word tragedy comes from the goat and half-goat costumes some performers wore in Ancient Greece. A third guess centers around live goats being the prize for the best actors in those plays of long ago.


The story: Mask is another loan-word from Middle French. Before that, it lived in Italy where it was once the medieval Latin word masca, which — also — means nightmare or a demon, in addition to just a mask.

A 21st-century take: No one knows how the word masca came to Latin in medieval times, but it seems to have ties to older Romance language words that mean “to blacken the face” or to an Arabic word meaning “a fool.”

Find Stories Everywhere

Stories are everywhere — even in the words we use to tell stories.

So, when you get to the end of Netflix this weekend — which, of course, can only be achieved during a quarantine marathon — think about one more word history, tied to the current crisis:


If you’ve studied French or other romance languages, you might correctly see ‘mort,’ the French word for ‘dead,’ and ‘gage,’ which means ‘pledge.’

Mortgage literally means ‘death pledge.’

Thank those Norman invaders for that word too.





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Ryan W Owen

Ryan W Owen

Writer / Photographer / Linguist / MBA