One hump or two humps? The Bactrian camel has two humps, and the Dromedary one. Bactria was an ancient country in central Asia, named after the modern village of Balkh in Afghanistan. Dromedary is from the Greek dromos (runner), from which we also get hippodrome, aerodrome, and perhaps less obviously, palindrome.

Palindrome is from the Greek for ‘running back again’ and is a word (or phrase) like ‘A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!’ that reads the same backwards as forwards.

Still confused about the number of humps? Imagine each initial letter on its side:


Poll originally meant the human head and was later used for the counting of heads. Poll in the sense of voting dates from about 1600. Another early method of voting was putting stones or balls into a container. Ballot is from the Italian ballotta, a small ball. Psephology, the prediction of election results, comes from the Greek psephos (pebble).

Flax is one of the earliest known textile fibres. A heckle (from the Middle Dutch hekelen) was originally an instrument for combing the strong fibres of flax or hemp. Heckle was later applied to the public questioning of parliamentary candidates. The candidates would be familiar with another early meaning of heckle: to irritate.


The earliest meaning of pollution (early 1300s) was the discharge of semen without sexual intercourse. Masturbate (the earlier English word was mastuprate) is from the Latin manus stuprare (defile with the hand). The modern meaning of pollution, contamination of the environment, dates from the 1870s but was not common until the 1950s. Pollute is from the Latin polluere (to soil or defile, from por, before, and lutum, mud). The earliest meaning of contaminate was to make impure by contact. Other words from the root tangere (to touch) are contagion (a disease communicated by touch); intact (untouched); tact (a sense of touch); and taste (the earliest meaning was to examine or explore by touch).


Magazine is from the Arabic makhazin, a storehouse, and this was the earliest meaning of the word in English in the 1500s. The French magasin (shop) is from the same root. A military store of gunpowder was also known as a magazine(hence the magazine on a gun). Magazineas in New Internationalist dates from the 1600s and was originally used in the sense of a storehouse of information.

Brochure is from the French brocher, to stitch. Bulletin is from the Latin bulla (sealed document). In the 1300s, a journal (from the same root as the modern French jour, day) was a book containing daily church services. Later journals showed daily stages of a journey, or daily financial accounts. The modern journal (not necessarily daily) dates from the 1700s.

A gazzetta was an old Italian coin, and the word may have been transferred to the newspaper sold for one gazzetta. Or gazette may be from gazza, the Italian for a magpie (as the newspaper contents were like the chattering of a magpie, a precursor of the chattering classes!). In the 1600s, a gazetteer was a journalist who wrote for a gazette. The modern meaning dates from 1693 when L Echard published a geographical dictionary that he called a gazetteer.


Edward Jenner (1749-1823) developed the smallpox vaccination after noticing that milkmaids who had caught cowpox were immune to the more serious smallpox. Vaccine is from the Latin vacca, cow. Inoculate is from the Latin oculus (eye or bud). Until the early 1700s inoculate referred to the grafting of plants. Modern inoculation, dating from the early 1700s, puts a bud of a substance into the patient’s body.

Syringe is from the Greek surigx meaning pipe or channel. A related English word, syrinx has meant both pan-pipes and a narrow gallery in an Egyptian tomb. In the Egyptian galleries of a museum you may come across Canopic jars, named after Canopus, a town in ancient Egypt, and used to store organs from an embalmed body. Mummies get their name from mumiya an Arabic word meaning pissasphalt or embalmed body, and/or from the Persian mum (wax). And if you are wondering about pissasphalt, pissa is Greek for bitumen, asphalt or pitch, with which mummies were coated.


The earliest English carpet was a tablecloth or bedspread. The word’s use for a floor covering dates from around the 1400s. Carpetis from the Latin carpere (to pluck or pull to pieces) – early carpets, especially in poor households, would have been made from old clothes. Harvest (the plucking of crops) is from the same root, as is the German Herbst (autumn).

Rug was first used in the modern sense of floor covering in the early 1800s. Earlier rugs were pieces of coarse woollen cloth and travel rugs were a necessity when travelling in winter in an unheated stagecoach. Rug is probably related to the Swedish rugg (ruffled hair) and Old Norse rogg (tuft). Rugged (originally meaning hairy, shaggy or coarsely woven) is a related word. The pile of a carpet is from the Latin pilus (hair): the earliest floor coverings were probably animal skins.


Brothel is from breothan, an Old English word meaning to go to ruin, or degenerate. A brothel first meant a wretch or scoundrel, and later a prostitute; it acquired its modern meaning because of confusion with the completely separate word bordel (from the Latin bordellum, a small farm or cottage). Prostitute is from the Latin prostituere (to expose publicly, to offer for sale). Courtesan is from the Italian cortigiana (courtier) and was originally a prostitute attached to a court. Pornography is from the Greek pornographos (porne, prostitute and graphein, to write).

Word Corner

“Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich.”

There are two types of elephant, the Indian (Elephas maximus) and the larger-eared African (Loxodonto africana). An elephant’s tusks are made of ivory. Elephant is from the Greek elephas which originally meant ivory, not the animal. The Old English word for ivory was elpendban (elephant bone). The word for the elephant’s other distinguishing feature, the trunk, dates from confusion with trump or trumpet in the 1500s. Proboscis is from Greek and is literally ‘a means of providing food’. If any elephants are reading this, beware of oranges! Orange is from the Sanskrit naga ranga meaning ‘fatal indigestion for elephants’.


Tea, introduced into Europe from China in the early 1600s, is made from the leaves and buds of the Camellia sinensis. The Mandarin Chinese for tea is ch’a, which survives in English as char. The word tea itself is from the Amoy Chinese dialect word te. There are many varieties of tea. Darjeeling is from the Tibetan dojeling (diamond island); oolong from the Chinese wulong (black dragon); souchong from the Chinese siu chung (small sort); and pekoe is from the Chinese pekho (pek, white; ho, down or hair) – the tea is made from young leaves picked with the down still on.

Tea leaves are stored in a canister (from the Greek kanastron, a wicker basket) or caddy (from catty, the Javanese or Malay kati, a unit of weight of about .68 of a kilogram). The Russian tea urn, the samovar, means ‘self-boil’.


Shampoo is from the Hindi, meaning to press or knead, and entered English in the 1760s with the original meaning of ‘massage’, especially as part of a Turkish bath. Shampooing the hair dates from the mid-1800s. The Turkish bath or hammam gets its name from the Arabic hamma (to heat). The Romans and Greeks used oil, not soap, for washing, and so had no word for soap. Soap is from the West Germanic saipo, originally a hair dye or pomade. Soap operas are so-called as early sponsors of US TV were soap manufacturers.


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