Do you ever wonder where the names of things came from? I often do, especially when the word is a colorful one that rolls off the tongue and delights the ear. There is an old legend that it was the baby angels who were delegated to designing the world’s insects, which is why they’re so varied and fanciful. Unlike mammals, which can usually be identified as being members of different families, rodents, marsupials, etc., insects very often don’t much resemble some of their close relatives. Their common names, sometimes equally as colorful and fanciful as their appearance, were certainly in existence long before their scientific names.
One of the first names that pops into my mind is the word butterfly. I’ve heard it said that the word is probably a mispronounced version of “flutter by,” which is more or less self-explanatory. For anyone who has spent much time around dairies, or even kept a milk cow, it seems more likely that milchdieb the German word for “milk thief,” was the start of it all.
The common word bug itself originally meant “something frightening.” Anyone who has ever found a quarter-size spider lurking in the bathtub, or had suicidal box-elder bugs dive into their morning coffee cup, will understand that.
Then, there are some words that are closely related but that we don’t usually recognize as being related to each other. Take the word nuzzle, which we think of as a sort of affectionate snuffling. Most of us would never give a thought to its relationship to that adjustable device on the garden hose that we call a nozzle or to a ness which is a promontory or headland. All these are related to the word nose.
I had often wondered if the word fowl, meaning a bird, was somehow related to its homonym foul. There seemed a sort of half-logical relationship to anyone who was familiar with the sanitary habits of most birds or to the European practice of hanging game birds, un-drawn, for a period of time before cooking them. Upon investigation, I discovered the word more likely derives from “fleug-” the base word that gives us the English term fly – a fowl is a flying creature. Makes me feel a lot better to know that!
I’d never really thought much about the origin of the word Yankee until a friend from another culture asked me if it is – or is not – a derogatory term. Thinking of George M. Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Yanks Are Coming and other more or less affectionate connotations, I thought not – then, I thought about the storied Confederate hatred for the northern Yankees, vehement chants of “Yankee, go home!” and began to wonder if I knew just what a Yankee is. I learned that it probably started out as a nickname (Janke) for Jan, a male Dutch name, and referred to the Dutch in general, who made up a considerable percentage of the population of New England in the mid 18th century. Eventually, it came to designate anyone from the northern United States, and to non Americans, any American at all. During WWI, it became associated in particular with American soldiers (as it had been associated with Union soldiers during the Civil War years). Whether or not it is a derogatory term seems to depend on the person speaking and the situation in which it is used. As with a great many American language usages, my foreign friend would be wise to avoid using such terms until she fully understands the implications of all its different meanings.
If you think you know what it means to be happy, you might argue with the origin of the word happy, which at one time meant silly. The word has passed through several phases, including a connection to hap – as in the sense of something that happens, by luck or chance. In the 14th century, the word meant “lucky, fortunate, prosperous” and it’s logical to see how it evolved to mean “highly pleased or contented.”
Getting back to naming the baby – it’s all baby-talk! Up until about the 11th century, the word child referred specifically to an infant. It was only around that time that it came to mean older offspring and imply the relationship of persons to their parents. Like “mama and dada,” baby derived from the babblings made by infants and – very likely – doting parents imagining that their precocious darlings were actually talking.