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January 29, 2016  |  Friday words, 2016-01-28  |  3191 hit(s)

Happy Friday, again! Time for another exciting installment of new-to-me words and unexpected-to-me word origins.

This week's new-to-me word is nocebo effect, which is sort of the opposite of the placebo effect. In the nocebo effect, people experience negative outcomes from treatments that are benign. As described on the FiveThirtyEight site, monosodium glutamate (MSG), the food additive, might have gotten a bad rap this way. Many people report experiencing an "MSG effect," but there's some evidence that this could be the power of suggestion; repeated studies don’t seem to be able to provide evidence for this effect. So: nocebo. Whatever the science, it's a great word.

On to unexpected etymology. Give a moment's thought to where the word magnet comes from. From the character Magneto in X-Men? No. Turns out that magnet is actually a toponymic term: the word comes ultimately from magnitis lithos, a Greek term meaning "Magnesian stone." Magnesia, who knew, is an area of Greece where the ancients found lodestones, which are naturally occurring magnets. Bonus: The name Magnesia is also the origin for the element name magnesium.

And speaking of entomology, Language Log had a piece the other day about where butterfly comes from. (See what I did there?) Possible spoiler: it might not be because a butterfly flies and is butter-colored. It's an interesting post, including a bit of a detour into Chinese (the author is a professor of Chinese at Penn). For a totally unexpected bit of etymology, there's a bit at the end that suggests a common root for lepidoptera ("scale-wing," the scientific name for the butterfly/moth genus), leprosy (a disease involving scaling/peeling), and leaf, which might also originate from a term referring to peel. Isn't etymology amazing, dang.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

Mike Dodaro   29 Jan 16 - 4:10 PM

If you're taking requests, maybe you can explain why the prefix giga is pronounced ghiga, 'g' as in Gengis Kahn. The root is clearly the same as the word giant, and electrical engineers say gigaherz as in gigahertz. How did computer techies start saying ghigabytes instead of gigabytes?