Etymology is a medium of proof so very fallacious, that, where it elucidates one fact, it obscures a thousand, and more frequently borders on the ridiculous than leads to any solid conclusion.

ARTHUR EDDINGTON (1882-1944)

Etymology

JAMES NICOLL

We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

The word ‘adolescent’ originally derives from the Latin adoleo, which can mean ‘to make bigger’, but also means ‘to emit a smell’.

Ancient Greek Idiots


In Ancient Greek the word idiotes simply meant a private person, i.e. anyone who did not hold public office. This became idiota in Latin, at first meaning ‘ordinary person, layman’, then ‘uneducated person’, and so by degrees to ‘mentally deficient person’ by 1300. The root is idios, 'one's own', which also gives us ‘idiom’ and ‘idiosyncratic’.

Given that ‘idiot’ once meant ‘anyone who is not a politician’, it is tempting - if cheap - to suggest that the meaning is reversed today...
 
‘Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.’ MARK TWAIN (1835-1910)

False Acronyms


Folk etymologists seem to be drawn to acronymic explanations, which are almost never right. Acronyms didn't enter general circulation until the Second World War or later, and there are almost no examples of words of acronymic origin before 1900.
 
Words often wrongly asserted to be acronyms include:
 
Posh – Port Out, Starboard Home. This supposedly described the shipboard accommodation of wealthy Brits travelling to India, who would have wanted cabins that were out of the sun. The word more likely comes from ‘posh’ to mean ‘a dandy’ (1890), or from thieves' slang meaning ‘money’ (1830).
 
Pom - Nobody knows definitively what the etymology of 'pom/my/mie' is, but neither the OED nor the Australian National Dictionary (AND) suggests that it has anything to do with acronyms involving prisoners, such as Prisoner of Mother England or Prisoner of Her Majesty. The OED and the AND suggest 'pommy' comes from 'pomegranate’. The OED claims this to be ‘the most widely-accepted’ etymology, which makes sense for two reasons:
(a) Pomegranate sounds roughly like 'immigrant' and hence, ‘immygran(i)t/pommygranate’ was possibly a jokey catcall targeting British newcomers.
(b) The pomegranate is a bright red fruit resembling the sunburnt skin of Brits in Australia.
 
Golf - Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden
 
Chav - Council House And Violent

The word ‘acronym’ wasn't coined until 1943.

True Acronyms


The fashion for acronymic creation is a military one, dating from around the time of the First World War. An early example is AWOL, or ‘Absent Without Official Leave’, although this wasn't consistently pronounced as a word at the time.
 
Other words which are acronyms include scuba, laser, radar, quango and gulag.
 
Many modern acronyms are used in such a way as to make at least one of their letters redundant. Examples include: HIV virus , ATM machine, SALT Talks, PIN number, AC/DC current, ISBN number, DOS operating system, ABS braking system, and LCD display.

The word ‘golf’ was first cited in 1457 in an Act which made it illegal.

MAX WEINREICH (1894-1969)

A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

English words of completely unknown origin include big, bad, fun, jam, jaw, put, dog and squid.

The words 'host' and 'guest' originally meant the same thing. Both words derive from the Indo-European word ghostis meaning 'stranger'.