Unusual word origins

Sometimes a word in some language has a literal or original meaning and then develops an additional (usually figurative) meaning that’s not especially close to the original. And then the word is borrowed into English (or another language) with only the secondary meaning. Which makes the word seem to have a rather unusual origin. Here’s a few examples:

bonanza (Spanish) calm sea or fair weather
eclair (French) lightning
fiasco (Italian) to make a bottle of
strudel (German) whirlpool

Any others?

Amateur – French for “lover”

“Khaki” Hindi for dirt colored. Was initially adopted as the color of the British Army uniform.

Has now come to be used as a generic term for business casual cotton pants.

Canary bird -

A twisted etymological path

Turtle. Originally,the name of a bird. After the Norman conquest, the French “tortule” became conflated with the bird through folk etymology.


Fiascos are often the result of consuming too much of a bottle’s contents, hence the term.

It’s also related to the English word “flask”.

Or abundance. The root is bueno, good (or rather, the Latin). What I don’t understand is what part do you consider the unusual origin.

Thanks for the contributions. I realize that I forgot something in the OP. I’m especially interested in words that are still in the original language with the same spelling. Although I don’t mind hearing about others words – etymology is generally quite interesting.

This one is slightly misleading. That is, if my French-English dictionary is correct, it means a non-romantic lover, lover of art or sports or something. But still that’s the kind of thing I’m looking for.

It means that you do whatever the task is for love of it, not money, as the professional does.

That may be a function of the etymology given by Merriam-Webster. They just say “calm sea”, which is a long way semantically to “a rich mineral deposit”, the original English meaning.

Of course. It’s just that “lover” without modification in English usually means a romantic lover.

The color pink is named after a flower, pinks. And was first used for centuries as a verb, “to pink”, as in to cut fabric in a way that resembles the frilly edge of the flower. Thus the type of scissors called “pinking shears”, a name that always baffled me until this subject came up.

“Love”, as in the tennis term for zero, comes from the French “L’oeuf”, egg. As in, a goose egg.

“Halcyon” comes from the Greek word for the kingfisher because it was thought that the kingfisher could make water calm in order to build a floating nest.

The word “adobe” comes down to us from ancient Egypt.

From the OED:

I think the word “escalate” has strange origins. It is a common enough word, used daily in the news and elsewhere. I always thought it had been around forever, and that “escalator” (moving stairways) came from it.

It is the other way around. “Escalator” was thought up out of thin air as the name of the stairs and escalate, meaning “to increase rapidly”, came from the product name.


Ah, yes, that so frequent “the first answer is the right answer” mindset which I hate so much in translations.

From vulgar Latin bonacia, a joke on malacia “dead calm”.

  1. Good weather at sea.
  2. Prosperity.
  3. In the “overseas” (colonial) mines, an abundance of mineral.

The English meaning is the third one.

One I encountered recently and which had me jumping on m-w because it made no sense. Apparently, in English playa means “the flat bottom of an undrained desert basin, which sometimes becomes a lake”.

Uh… in Spanish it means beach. It can be a beach at a lake, or at the sea, or on a river; it may be sandy, or pebbly, or rocky, but it’s at the edge of the water. Whether it was a joke or someone thinking that playa means “sandy place” I can’t tell.

mixdenny, wouldn’t escalator come from escalier (stairs), or from escaler (to climb)? Assuming French simply because that tends to be the source of a lot of Romance roots in English.

Thank you for confirming that this seems to be just what I’m looking for. I’m not really sure what your problem is with this one.

BTW, the current English meaning is an old TV show staring Loren Greene, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon. :slight_smile:

The wiki page on dry lake just says that that’s what dry lakes are called in parts of Mexico and the US southwest. Doesn’t say why.

But why are you getting upset over etymology? If you’ve studied word origins at all, you should be aware that they don’t always make sense.

That’s probably where the trademark Escalator came from, but the verb escalate came from the trademark.

Just that until you explained a bit more I wasn’t sure what were you looking for.
I’ve never encountered an etymology which didn’t make sense. Sometimes they include misunderstandings or malapropisms, but they always make sense.