The over-enthusiastic etymologist, #1: Canada, Handsome, Enormity

I’ve always loved words and, as a teenager, I wanted to become an etymologist. I fantasised about having a column in a newspaper in which I delved into the origins of words and gave of my vast erudition to the world. I had a collection of a few dozen words whose etymologies I thought I knew, and which I trotted out in conversation, but which, age, wisdom and investigation of the internet have shown me are completely false. But even bogus etymologies can still, I think, have a certain charm. Well, you decide . . .


It’s an odd name for a country, Canada, and I used to wonder where it came from. Then I heard this explanation. When the first European settlers in the Americas started to draw up maps of the New World, they focused on the Caribbean, South and Central America. In the north of the continent, all they knew was that it contained a great, empty wilderness. So on the maps they wrote the Spanish words “Ca Nada” meaning “Nothing Here” – from which we get Canada. And I repeated that story for years.

It is complete nonsense, I now know. Canada comes from the word for village or settlement in the Native Amerindian languages. The word “town” in Mohawk is pronounced “kanaata”. So when the newly arrived Europeans asked what the place they were in was called, one local said, loudly and slowly, as if speaking to an idiot: This is a “town”.


I used to ponder the word handsome, possibly while looking dismally into a mirror and squeezing my adolescent spots. I somehow came to the conclusion that “handsome”, made up of “hand” and the suffix “some”, originally meant a person that a girl would like to get their hands on. (Heteronormative, I know, but this was the late 1970s.) I backed this up with the evidence that “toothsome”, meant something you wanted to sink your teeth in. And, to my hormonal mind, “buxom” was a girl you really wanted to “buck”.

I later learnt that “handsome” originally meant “ready to hand” or “easy to handle” and that the meaning of many (all?) words change a lot over time. In fact, “buxom” is related to the verb “to bow”, and originally (12th century) meant “humble, obedient”. The word “nice” used to mean “exact” or “precise”.


I always used to feel smug when people used the word “enormity” wrongly. It was drummed into me during my years as a newspaper sub-editor that enormity did NOT mean “enormousness”, it actually meant something egregiously bad; it meant “extreme wickedness” as in “the enormity of Jack the Ripper’s crimes”. Whenever I heard a famous or powerful person using the word incorrectly, I enjoyed a little jolt of satisfaction. What I did not know, and do now, is that “enormous” and “enormity” are from the same root and both originally referred to something unnaturally outsized and therefore bad. Furthermore, the meaning of enormity is now recognised as being in the process of changing to . . . “enormousness”.

Angus Donald’s latest novel is The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3), which is now available on Amazon.

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Alex Dee
Alex Dee
1 year ago

I remember hearing that “ gossip” used to be a compliment. It stems from ‘godsib’ meaning ‘god sibling’ in the same vein as godfather and godmother (god stemming from good rather than the deity).
The godsibs, usually older women, used to care for the infants of the village while the more able parents would work the land or hunt or whatever. They would chat about the news and scandal of the village and the rest is history.