Etymology is generally not a subject known to excite anyone outside of English grad students and “Jeopardy!”fans. People just don’t care that much about the origin of words.
But that lack of interest likely stems from an assumption that the people who came up with our common words were stuck-up intellectuals who would have outlawed having a sense of humor if they could get the votes.
As it turns out, that’s not quite the case. The history of language is full of jokes and puns that would make a sixth-grader say, “OK, seriously, guys, grow up.”
Just check out the filthy origins of these common words.
“Porcelain” is one of the classiest words on the face of the planet. It conjures thoughts of delicate elegance, hand-crafted quality and refined luxury.
Sure, it also kind of sounds like a good name for a stripper. But given the word’s sordid history, this may make a lot of sense.
“Porcelain” comes from the Italian “porcellana,” which translates to “cowrie shell,” as porcelain itself tends to look like the surface of the shell. The Italians who developed the original word used the root “porcella,” which refers to a young pig, because the opening of the cowrie shell is said to resemble a pig’s outer genitalia.
“Porcelain” essentially means “pig vagina.”
Yes, I know that sounds like a joke from a deleted “Anchorman” scene.
If “porcelain” is one of the classiest words in the English language, “testimony” and “testify” have to be among the most boring, right? After all, their root words are the Latin “testis,” meaning “witness.”
Except, well, there’s another common word that comes from “testis.” Yeah, you know what it is.
Those who study this sort of thing tend to believe that testicles (There ya go.) got their name because they are the “witness” to a man’s virility, which seems like a complicated way of saying, “Come on, guys, no one is asking you to do anything with your balls when they tell you to testify before the court. Please put your pants back on.”
The avocado is the key ingredient in guacamole, which makes it the key ingredient in human happiness. Chipotle could charge an extra $200 for that stuff, and we’d happily sell our organs to fund our delicious addiction.
The word has a less tasty backstory, though. “Avocado” originally derives from a Nahuatl word that was also used as a synonym for “testicle.”
Some researchers theorize that the Nahuatl people made this bizarre vocabulary choice due to the fact that an avocado kind of looks like a big, green testicle. In other words, even ancient cultures were prone to the kind of jokes you made as a preteen.
Though, as a guy, I have to admit that the idea of making guacamole suddenly makes me feel squeamish.
These days, “gymnasium” is the formal version of “gym,” which roughly translates to “that place you waste membership fees on.”
Its root word is the Greek adjective “gymnos,” which means “naked.”
See, in ancient Greece, the gymnasium was a place used not only for exercise, but also for philosophical discussions and communal bathing. (OK, it’s still kind of used for that last one these days.)
As such, people often exercised in the nude. “Gymnasium” refers to a place where you exercise naked.
It’s probably a good thing we’ve moved beyond that definition. Staying fit is hard enough without being forced to see that which you can’t unsee every time you take a yoga class.
"Fundamental” seems like a pretty awesome word. Something that combines the words “fun” and “mental”? That’s the kind of adjective that must be reserved for only the most intensely joyful experiences.
“Yeah, man, I went to Chuck E. Cheese’s this weekend. It was fundamental!”
Luckily, etymologists are, against all odds, making our lives a little more interesting again. “Fundamental” is related to the Latin “fundament,” which refers to the ass. Basically, the fundament of something is its foundation, since, when you’re sitting, your ass is the foundation of your body.
Cue the “religious fundamentalist” jokes.
It’s the most common adjective found in bed-and-breakfast reviews. It’s how you describe the little arts village you and your significant other stopped by on your Sunday drive. Quaint seems like the most harmless word in the English language next to “marshmallow.”
And forms of it also show up in English literature as an early version of the, um, the c-word. This changes everything. Suddenly, TripAdvisor just became the most entertaining site on the Internet.
Vanilla is the most boring flavor of ice cream, a synonym for “bland,” and the beginning of the worst rapper alias in recorded history.
But its etymology is a lot more fun! “Vanilla” comes from the Latin word “vagina.” It got its name when the explorers who discovered it thought that vanilla pods resembled a sheath.
Yeah, it’s best to mention that “vagina” in Latin also referred to a sheath. But that won’t stop some of you from making cunnilingus jokes the next time you order vanilla ice cream, now will it?
It’s what your grandparents used to say back when using any sort of real profanity probably resulted in death by firing squad. Nowadays, it’s a brand of popcorn. And probably what Ted Cruz would name his dog, or something.
But “poppycock” comes to us from the old Dutch work “pappekak,” which combined the word “pappe,” meaning “soft food,” and “kak,” meaning “dung.”
So, our grandparents were a little dirtier than we thought. And that popcorn brand named itself after poop.
Granted, if you break the word “poppycock” down in English, the result isn’t much better.
Take note, college professors: Information like this is the key to boosting enrollment in those etymology courses.