Let Me Ruin Your Favorite Words With Etymologies

Sarah Scullin
Jul 19 · 4 min read

Mortgageliterally a “death pledge” but don’t worry you will die before you ever own a home.

Cynicism — someone who is cynical is following in the footsteps of Diogenes the cynic who literally took public shits and wanked as like, his brand.

Rapture — this is rape* but from god.

Europe — so named for the extent of land a god raped* someone over.

(*I’m not going to get into the particulars of the scope of the semantic field covered by Latin rapio/Greek harpazo; but I can say that if that’s something you want to nitpick you are a bad person and the people in your life secretly hate you)

Archways — I can’t quite ruin the word for you, but I can ruin the structure. The Latin word for archway (or vault) was “fornix,” and since sex workers tended to hang out in these structures, “doing the thing people do in archways” is to fuck semi-secretly. Or at least in shade.

Sycophant—this is someone who literally “shows you the fig” … which means they would stick the tip of their thumb between their first two fingers to simulate a vulva. Incidentally figs were also euphemisms for warts so let’s just not eat figs or say their name anymore ok.

Galaxy—looks like a squirt of breastmilk (“galax” = “milk”).

The shape of Hearts — anytime you see a heart-shape know that it is thought to be suggestive of the shape of silphium, a now-extinct plant that was used effectively as a contraceptive and abortifacient. So a little heart shaped valentine is a way to tell someone you want to have their Plan-B. Awwww.

Panic—comes from the name of the god Pan and here’s a picture of Pan:

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Hysteriafrom the word for uterus and the condition in which a semen-parched uterus wanders around the body and settles in the neck, strangulating from within and making someone act like a crazy bitch.

Vagina—literally a “sheath” (like, for a sword) so if you aren’t yet backing “vulva” in the great anatomical diction debate of this century you are now.

Vulva—is “a wrapper” because back when the Romans started using the term they literally didn’t recognize the vulva vulva and just thought all that business from clit to cervix was what we now just call “womb.” So, vulva = “baby wrapper” and now I don’t know what to call it … is “hoo-haw” feminist?

Cervix—means “neck” because the Romans (thanks to the Greeks) thought there was a mirror-image direct pathway from “upper mouth” to “lower mouth” and so they thought there were upper and lower lips (“labia”) and necks (“cervix”) I love etymologies yup.

(While we’re on the topic, “lip” “labia” and “lick” all derive from the same PIE root just sayin’)

Annoy—derived ultimately from the PIE root meaning “hate” so don’t ever let anyone tell you you are overreacting to chew noises.

Meat —“wet” and moist because it drips fat and blood. Try to enjoy steak now without thinking of its oozing bloody moist lipidity.

Curt, carnal, carnage, carrion, skirt, and shirt all derive from the PIE root that means “cut” (*sker). This one doesn’t ruin anything for me, but isn’t it cool?

Testify—most people think this word is related to testicles (whether because they “bear witness” to one’s virility or because some people with testicles like to swear by their nuts, we’ll never know).

Seminar”—because it’s a kind of lesson you would get in a “seminary” which is a breeding ground for people to inject philosophical “semen” into your brain. A seminar is brain splooge, basically.

Penicillincomes from “penis” ultimately because under a microscope the bacterium looks like thin little paintbrushes that themselves look like little dicks. It’s a diminutive of a diminutive. Awwww, cute little deadly bacterial micropeen.

FecesI can’t really ruin feces for you (it does a pretty good job of that on its own), but the term > “dregs” (as in wine lees). So if we reverse this etymology, wine dregs are when a rotten befooted grape poops in the bottom of your glass. Plus it has tannins.

Sarah Scullin thinks you’ll thank her later.


Medium humor. Large laughs.

Sarah Scullin

Written by

Classicist, Writer, Mother. Managing Editor of Eidolon. Finisher of 95% of projects, 100% of the time.



Medium humor. Large laughs.

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