Blog, English Programs, ESL Studies, International Students

13 English Words with Unusual Origins

The English language is shaped by contributions from many cultures and historical events. Many everyday words English words have surprising and interesting origins, reflecting the fascinating journey of the language’s evolution. Each word has its own unique story, highlighting the diverse influences on English. In this exploration, we reveal the intriguing histories behind 13 English words with unusual origins, showing how their meanings and uses have changed over time.


The word “clue” originates from the Old English word “clew,” meaning “a ball of thread or yarn.” In Greek mythology, Theseus unravels a ball of thread as he searches for the monstrous Minotaur in the Labyrinth. After killing the Minotaur, he retraces his steps out of the maze by rewinding the thread.


The word “salary” comes from the Latin word “salarium,” meaning “salt money.” In ancient Rome, soldiers were sometimes paid with salt or given money to buy it, as salt was highly valuable. This practice gave rise to the term “salary,” which now refers to regular payment for services.

Fun Fact:

Salt was used not only as a seasoning but, more importantly, as a preservative, enabling people to store food for longer periods.


The word “quarantine” comes from the Italian word “quaranta,” which means “forty.” During the Black Death in the 14th century, ships arriving in Venice were required to wait for 40 days before disembarking to ensure they were disease-free. This practice was known as “quarantina giorni.”

Fun Fact:

The first quarantine took place in 1348, after the bubonic plague reached Venice and Milan.


The word “phony” possibly originates from the British thieves’ slang “fawney,” meaning “a fake ring.” It came to describe anything fake or insincere.


The word “alcohol” comes from the Arabic word “al-kuḥl,” meaning “the kohl” (a fine powder used for eyeliner). Over time, it evolved to refer to any fine powder, then to the distilled essence of a substance, and eventually to the intoxicating liquid found in drinks.

Fun Fact

The earliest evidence of alcohol dates back to 7,000 BCE in China, where residue in clay pots shows people made fermented beverages from rice, millet, grapes, and honey.


The word “lemon” comes from the Arabic “laymun” and the Persian “limun.” The name for the citrus fruit passed through Middle Eastern and Mediterranean languages before becoming “lemon” in English.

Fun Fact

In ancient times, lemon juice and lemon oil were used to preserve food, sanitize water, and treat illnesses such as colds and fevers.


The word “cadet” comes from the French term “cadet,” which means “younger son or brother.” It originally described younger sons who were sent to pursue military careers. Today, the term refers to trainees in military academies.


The word “algebra” is derived from the Arabic term “al-jabr,” meaning “reunion of broken parts.” This term comes from the title of a mathematical book by Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, whose work greatly influenced the field of algebra.

Fun Fact

The ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians were among the first to use algebraic concepts dating back to around 2,000 BC. They used formulas to simplify multiplication, such as ab = [(a + b)² – (a – b)²]/6.


The word “caucus” possibly originates from the Algonquian word “caucauasu,” meaning elders, leaders, advisers. It came into English in the 18th century to refer to a meeting of members of a political party to select candidates or decide policy.


The word “zombie” comes from the West African word “nzambi,” meaning “god,” and later the Haitian Creole word “zonbi,” referring to a reanimated corpse. It entered English through stories of Haitian folklore about reanimated dead bodies.


The word “sarcasm” comes from the Greek word “sarkazein,” meaning “to tear flesh like a dog.” It originally referred to a form of wit meant to mock or show contempt by figuratively “tearing” at someone with words.

Fun Fact

Since the brain needs to think creatively to understand or express sarcasm, using sarcasm can promote creative thinking.


The word “laconic” comes from the region of Laconia in Greece, home to the capital Sparta. The Spartans were renowned for their terse and concise speech, leading to the term “laconic” to describe a style of speaking or writing that uses very few words.

Fun Fact

Starting at age 7, Spartan boys underwent training to become warriors in the Agoge, which functioned somewhat like a school for soldiers.


The word “pavement” comes from the Latin word “pavimentum,” meaning “hard floor” or “level surface beaten firm.” The term eventually evolved to refer specifically to a hard surface for roads or sidewalks.

The beauty of understanding the unusual origins of the English language lies in recognizing the interconnectedness of all cultures and civilizations. No country or language exists in isolation; we all share commonalities.

Want to understand American football? Check out our Guide for International Viewers

Study at the Best English School in Florida with 25+ years of experience. Learn more about our programs at and get in touch with one of our many Student Advisors who will help you every step of the way.

When you’re ready to go, OHLA Schools is here to welcome you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *