The more you look back to the past, the more you start to see the present everywhere you look. Nowhere is this truer than in language. What’s always been a source of particular interest to me is the journey words go on through the passage of time. Names that become verbs. Concrete nouns that become proper nouns. Names that become brands, popular meals, or lifestyles. Words that once held very specific, contextual meanings that became vague, casual, or generic everyday terms. The process of naming is fascinating to me. And the thing about languages is that they aren’t founded on a stroke- they’re compounds of everything that came before them.
Today I’d like to run through some of the most interesting examples of modern words derived from the names of long-forgotten peoples. Be sure to let me know in the comments any others you can think of!
Modern Word: Magician/magic
Historical Origin: The Magi
Figured I’d start off with a real banger. The Magi were an order of highly influential Zoroastrian priests in Ancient Persia. Over time, they came to be associated with astrology, alchemy, illusionism, mysticism, fortune-telling, curses, and general esoteric knowledge. The Greeks in particular became fascinated with Zoroaster, whom they saw as the inventor of these practices. The Magi (singular: magus) therefore became a generic term for sorcerers, which is where the modern words “magician” and “magic” come from.
Modern Word: Mogul
Historical Origin: Mongol
What’s interesting about the Mongols is that they didn’t impose their culture or language on the peoples they conquered. They preferred to co-opt local frameworks rather than dismantle them entirely. Although brutal in warfare, the Mongols ruled with a light touch- which is likely due in no small part to the fact they were vastly outnumbered by their subjects in every region they conquered. In some parts of the empire- such as China- the ratio between the natives and the Mongols was 1000–1. From the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, the Mongols served as the ruling class, and therefore became synonymous with power.