English is notorious for adopting words from other languages, leading to plenty of mistranslations or miscommunications. Rather than acknowledging the mistake, English speakers tend to double down and embrace the it, creating new words all on their own. Below are nine such words that were invented by mistake.
Often used in reference to computing, an algorithm is a set mathematical process with clear steps in order to arrive at the right answer. But the word algorithm is a mistranslation of the name of 9th-century Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī. It was Latinized to be “Algoritmi.” That’s right — one of the fundamental terms in the field of mathematics comes from a mispronunciation of a name.
The Old English word “fnesan” means to snort. Styles of writing and penmanship later changed, and there was confusion between the letter “s” and the letter “f.” Fnesan turned into snesan, and there you have the start of sneeze. Gesundheit!
A tornado is a flurry of winds, maybe so loud that people couldn’t hear the correct words. The etymology of this word is unclear, but it’s close enough to the Spanish words “tronada,” which means thunder, and “tornar,” which means to turn. The combination of the two, and perhaps not quite hearing the difference between the two, created the word tornado.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the language of law was French. This particular word may have been created as a misinterpretation of a common abbreviation in legal documents, cul.prist. “Culpable: prest d'averrer notre bille,” or “Guilty: we’re ready to prove your indictment.” As the years went on and English became more common, the abbreviations became harder to understand. It is most likely this confusion that created culprit as the guilty word we know today.
The word pea is actually known as a backformation, or a word created from an already existing and usually longer word. The original form of the green legume was “pease,” with the plural being “pesen.” However, “pease” was mistaken for the plural, and people quickly became used to calling the singular “pea.” The mistake stuck around, and now “peas” is the plural of “pea.”
Ammunition, like culprit, is from French, one of the more dominant languages throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. The word “la munition,” which means military weapons, was heard incorrectly by English speakers as ammunition, and the word has maintained its firing power today.
Sherry is a delicious type of alcohol from Spain — sometimes sweet and always strong. The name is commonly believed to be a misinterpretation of the Spanish “vino de Xeres.”
Chassé is a French ballet term, meaning to move across the floor and then to jump and bring your feet together. Then English ears heard it and wrote down sashay, which means a sassy, dance-like walk.
While the term varsity is now strictly used in the high school sense, the word actually comes from university. It’s a shortening and misspelling of the word, based on an archaic pronunciation.
What lessons have we learned here? In English, no mistake is really a mistake. Just stick to your guns and say something long enough, and loud enough, and it will become a word.
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