Origins of English Words: 18 Terms with Cool Life Stories
What if I told you that there is a way to learn multiple English words at the same time?
All you have to do is learn the origin of English words along with their definitions. Then, for each new word, you will actually learn two, three or even ten additional words!
The origin of a word is the language it originally came from. A majority of English word roots come from Latin and Greek, but there are plenty from other languages as well.
With each word below, you will see a “related words” section. These words will be broken down into their roots with parentheses. So “together (sym)” tells you that the root sym means together.
Here are the origins of 18 English words—though you will learn the meanings of more than 30 other words!
- English Word Origins: Greek
- English Word Origins: Latin
- English Word Origins: Old Norse
- English Word Origins: French
- English Word Origins: Italian
- English Word Origins: Arabic
- English Word Origins: Spanish
- English Is Always Growing
- How Learning Word Origins Can Improve Your English
- Roots, Prefixes and Suffixes
- And One More Thing...
English Word Origins: Greek
Meaning: A phone is a device that’s used to communicate with people from a distance (you might be using a phone to read this!).
Origin: The English word phone is actually short for telephone, which comes from the Greek words for sound (phon) and far away (tele).
Related words: Homophones are words that sound (phon) the same (homo) but are spelled differently, like hear and here.
If you like hearing nice things you might enjoy a symphony, which is when many instruments play together (sym) to make a beautiful sound (phon)… usually.
Meaning: Someone who is hyper is very energetic and lively.
Origin: Hyper is actually a shortening of the word hyperactive, which combines the Greek word meaning “over, beyond” (hyper) and the Latin word for something that’s done (act).
Related words: When someone tells you they’re so hungry they could eat a horse, you know they’re just exaggerating by using a hyperbole—stretching the truth, like throwing (bole) something too far (hyper).
No matter how exciting someone’s hyperbole is, try not to hyperventilate! That means to breathe or blow out air (ventilate) too much (hyper) in a way that makes you dizzy.
Meaning: When a few things happen at the same time or in the same way, they’re in sync. This word is a shortening of the word synchronize, but it’s used alone nowadays as a verb (your phone apps might even sync to make sure your files are up to date).
Origin: Sync comes from a Greek word that means to be together (sym or syn).
Related words: A synopsis is a summary of something like a movie or a play. It’s a way for everyone to see (opsis) the meaning together (syn).
Synopsis and summary are actually synonyms, which are words that share the same (syn) meaning but have a different sound or name (onym).
Stay away from a play if the synopsis says the actors lip-sync. That means they move their lips (lip) together (syn) with the music without actually creating the sounds themselves.
Meaning: Air is all around us. It’s the invisible gas that creates our atmosphere. Without air, we wouldn’t be able to breathe!
Origin: The word air has gone through a few languages before ending up in English, but it probably comes from the Greek word aer, which means to blow or breathe. You can actually find words that use both aer and air.
Related words: An airplane is a relatively flat object (plane) that flies in the air (air). Airplanes are aerodynamic, which means they use the air (aer) to power (dynamic) their flight.
Don’t forget to look down when you’re in that plane, since aerial (of the air) views are pretty amazing!
English Word Origins: Latin
Meaning: Something dense is packed tightly or very thick. For example, a fog can be so dense, or thick, that you can’t see much through it.
Origin: Dense comes from the Latin densus, meaning “thick.”
Related words: You can see condensation when evaporated water molecules join together (con) and become thick (dens) enough to form droplets.
Density is the measure of how thickly packed (dens) something is, like people or things in one space.
Meaning: To finish something means to be done with it. In a few seconds you’ll be finished reading this sentence.
Origin: Finish comes from the Latin word finis which means “end.” In many words, this is shortened to fin.
Related words: You’ve probably defined a lot of vocabulary words in your English learning, which means you’ve looked up what the words mean. You could say that you’ve brought an end (both de and fin) to your lack of understanding!
Don’t worry, there’s a finite number of words in English, which is a noun (ite) that means something that has a limit or end (fin). If English were infinite, or without (in) a limit, we would be learning it forever!
Meaning: The form of something is its shape. As a verb, to form means to create something in a specific shape.
Origin: The word form comes from the Latin words for a mold (forma) and the Latin verb to form or to create (formare).
Related words: Many jobs and schools require people to wear a uniform, which is clothing that all looks the same or has one (uni) style (form). When places don’t have strict rules about what clothes to wear, they’re informal, or without (in) a specific shape (form).
Meaning: A letter is a symbol that represents a sound in a language, like a, b, c or the rest of the alphabet. A letter is also a message you write and send to someone. Emails are digital letters!
Origin: In Latin, a letter was called a littera, and the lit and liter parts of this word appear in many English words that are related to letters.
Related words: If you’re reading this, you’re literate—you know how to read (liter). You probably read literature (books) and hopefully don’t take fiction too literally (seriously and exactly).
All these words are forms of the stem liter, but their suffixes turn them into someone who reads (literate), something that exists (literature) and someone who does things to the letter (literally).
Meaning: A part is a piece of a whole, something that isn’t complete. In verb form, to part means to divide or remove something.
Origin: This word comes from the Latin partire or partiri, which means to divide or share among others.
Related words: Somebody impartial has no (im) opinion about something—they take no part in the debate.
You can be impartial about whether you live in a house or an apartment. An apartment is the result (ment) of dividing a building into smaller spaces (part).
Wherever you live, make sure it’s safe—you wouldn’t want to put your family in jeopardy, which is a dangerous situation or, according to the original definition, an evenly divided (part) game (jeo).
Meaning: Your voice is the sound you use to speak. You can also voice, or state, an opinion.
Origin: The Latin word for voice is vox, and the word for “to call” is vocare. These two related words are the origin of a number of English words related to speech or voices. They usually include the root voc or vok.
Related words: An advocate is someone who calls (voc) others to help them (ate) support a cause or a person.
Even someone who means well might end up provoking someone who doesn’t agree with them. To provoke someone means to call someone (vok) forward (pro) and challenge them in a way that usually makes them angry.
English Word Origins: Old Norse
Meaning: A loft is a room right under the roof or very high up in a building. The loft in a house is usually used for storage, but building lofts are rented out as (usually smaller) living spaces.
Origin: The Old Norse word for air or sky was lopt, which is written as loft in English.
Related words: Something aloft is up in (a) the air (loft). If something is very tall, you would say it’s lofty, which is the adjective form of loft. In the same way, someone lofty has a very high (loft) opinion of themselves, which makes them act proud or snobbish.
English Word Origins: French
Additional posts to check out:
- 11 Surprising English Words That Come from French
- French Words in English: Over 100 Words You Thought Were English
Meaning: Asking a question means trying to get information about something. Questions end in question marks (?).
Origin: Originally from Latin, English borrowed the Old French word question and never gave it back. The word means “to ask” or “to seek,” and it shows up in a number of ways in other words, from quire to quest. This one can be tough to spot since it switches between using the French and Latin versions of the word.
Related words: Some fantasy books have the main characters going on a quest, or a long and difficult search (quest) for something.
Maybe you’re more interested in murder mystery books, which often have an inquest, or an official investigation (quest) into (in) someone’s suspicious death.
If these types of books sound interesting, you can inquire, or ask (quest) about (in) them at your local library.
Meaning: Peace is a calm state of being. It means no wars or troubles. Peace is a wonderful thing!
Origin: The Latin pax and Old French pais both mean peace, and English words use both as prefixes and suffixes. Look for words with pac or peas in them (not the kind of peas you eat—that’s a whole other word).
Related words: To pacify means to make (ify) someone calmer (pac). To calm someone, you can try to appease them, which means to (a) bring them peace (peas) by giving them what they want.
Meaning: Liberty is the state of being free. The Statue of Liberty in New York is a symbol of freedom.
Origin: Another originally Latin word, liberty found its way into English through the Old French liberete, usually shortened to lib.
Related words: A liberator is a person (ator) who sets others free (lib) from a situation like slavery, jail or a bad leader.
Becoming free means being open to changes, so it helps if you’re liberal—someone with a personality (al) that’s open to (lib) new ideas or ways of thinking.
English Word Origins: Italian
Meaning: Doing something with gusto means really enjoying it and being enthusiastic about it.
Origin: The Italian word gusto actually means taste, and comes from the Latin for taste, gustus.
Related words: You won’t do something with gusto if you find it disgusting. That’s the negative feeling you get about something you think is unpleasant—literally, without (dis) taste (gust).
English Word Origins: Arabic
Meaning: To check means to take a close look at something, or to make sure of something (verify it). For example, before you leave for work in the morning you might check that you have everything you need.
Check can also be used as a verb that means to stop or slow something down.
Origin: The word check has an interesting history, moving from language to language and changing its meaning a little with each one. The word is originally from Persian and then Arabic, where it meant “king.”
Over time, check started being used in the game of chess and was defined as “to control.” Eventually the word’s meaning changed to what it is today. So much history in such a small word!
Related words: Leaving something unchecked means leaving something without (un) limits or control (check). If you leave weeds to grow unchecked in your yard, for example, they’ll take over and destroy your other plants.
The word check on its own also refers to a piece of paper worth a certain amount of money (you write checks to pay bills).
A raincheck used to be a ticket given to people attending outdoor events that had to be stopped because of rain. Today a raincheck is just a promise to do something another time.
English Word Origins: Spanish
Additional posts to check out:
- 70 English Words of Spanish Origin: The Complete Guide
- 35 Spanish Words Used in English You Have to Know!
Meaning: A breeze typically refers to a gentle wind. It can also refer to something that’s easy to do.
Origin: This word comes from the Old Spanish briza, which meant “a cold northeastern wind.” Over time, briza came to refer to “a northeastern trade wind” and, eventually, just “a brisk, fresh wind from the sea.”
Related words: A sea breeze is the English term for a light wind that blows from the sea toward the shore.
The weather in general might be breezy, or this word can describe a casual, carefree or easygoing atmosphere.
You might walk through a breezeway, an outdoor passage with a roof that connects two buildings.
Meaning: A tornado is a destructive, rotating column of air that reaches from a storm system to the ground. There are many examples of tornadoes in works of fiction, such as in “The Wizard of Oz” and the movie “Twister.”
Origin: Navigators in the 1500s used the term ternado for violent, windy thunderstorms encountered in the Atlantic Ocean. This was likely borrowed from the Spanish term tronada, meaning “thunderstorm,” via tronar or “to thunder.” Over time, the navigators’ term transformed into tornado and came to mean “a violent whirlwind of air.”
Related words: Tornados are frequent in the central United States, and this vaguely defined area has come to be known as Tornado Alley.
The English suffix -ado can be found in many words of Spanish (and Portuguese) origin, meaning “a person, thing or group engaging in an action.” If a tornado is a thing that thunders, then a desperado is a person that is desperate and a commando is a troop that is commanded (or a person not wearing underwear!).
English Is Always Growing
English is a living language. That means it’s always growing and changing.
Many things influence the English language and its growth, but no matter how new or old a word is, you can probably trace it back to an original word or the moment when it was accepted into the language.
Whether the word is fleek (meaning “nice,” from 2003) or fleet (meaning a group of military ships, from the year 1200), most English words came from somewhere else.
Some words are borrowed from other languages and turn into English words with few or no changes, like the Italian words pizza and zucchini. Other words are changed a lot more and become barely recognizable, like the Latin word pax which turned into peace in English.
No matter how different a word is from its origin, though, knowing where it came from can help you become a better English learner.
How Learning Word Origins Can Improve Your English
When you learn a new word, do you remember to learn its different forms and tenses as well?
For instance, knowing the word “to see” isn’t enough when you want to talk about something from last week. You need to say “to see” in a different way, such as “I see,” “I saw,” “I’m going to see” or “I’ve seen.”
You can apply the same idea to word origins. When you learn the origin of a word, you might see it again in another word.
That’s because when a foreign word is adopted by English, it often takes on many new forms in the English language. It may be combined with other words, and these combinations create even more new words—which are all related to the original word!
When this happens, you might be able to get a basic understanding of a new word you see. For example, look at these English words:
Notice anything similar about them? They all have the word trans in them, which comes from the Latin word meaning “across.” Now, even if you don’t know the full meaning of the words, you can figure out that they deal with something going across.
Now look at the original meanings of the other parts of the words:
Port — To carry
So, it makes sense that to transport something means that you carry something across a space. For example, a bus might transport people from one city to another. A plane might transport people from one country to another.
Now look at:
Gress — To go
To transgress means that you cross a boundary, rule or law.
And we have:
Action — To do
A transaction usually involves an exchange or trade of some kind. For example, when you give money to a cashier to buy a new shirt, this is a transaction.
You can probably figure out what words mean from this kind of information. See how much we knew before we even thought about opening a dictionary? It’s all thanks to knowing word origins!
The more origins and original meanings you learn, the more you’ll see such English words with roots in other languages.
Try it yourself: Group words with the same origin into separate lists and look for the patterns. Better yet, get a program that can do that for you—like FluentU, where you can save words from any of the program’s videos into customized flashcard decks.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Roots, Prefixes and Suffixes
English words are often made from root words, with prefixes and suffixes joined to them:
- A prefix is added to the beginning of a word. The bi in bicycle is a prefix that means “two” (as in two wheels).
- A suffix is added to the end of a word. The less in endless is a suffix that means “without” (which is why endless means “without an end”).
Once you remove all the prefixes and suffixes on a word, you’re left with its root, which is the part of the word that gives its main meaning. The words cycle and end in the above words are roots.
Different prefixes and suffixes are added to a root to change its meaning and create new words. For example, the root word hand can become:
- unhand (to let go)
- handout (something you give for free)
- handsome (good looking)
All three words have different meanings, but they’re all related in one way or another to hand.
How is handsome related to hand? A long time ago, the word used to mean “easy to handle” and then later became a term used to show appreciation for someone.
So the next time you see a word that has hand in it, you’ll be one step closer to understanding it before you even look it up!
Again, learning more about the origins of English words, including roots, prefixes and suffixes, will make it easier to understand new words and expand your English vocabulary.
Don’t stop learning here! Can you find more words that use the related roots?
There are always new words to discover, and now you know exactly what to look for!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)