Trivia 030: Somebody call Sid Meier

Anybody who has studied some etymology can tell you that there are lots of words and phrases out there with somewhat counterintuitive origins. There are many words we take for granted which did not exist in our language at some point. In some cases, these words are the result of other words taking on new connotations due to cultural and historical influences. For example, the word “dexterous” originally comes from the Latin word “dexter” meaning “right”, as in “the opposite of left”. Meanwhile, “sinister” comes from the Latin word for “left”, because heraldric icons on the left side of a coat of arms sometimes indicated illegitimacy.

In other cases, languages will often borrow words from each other. Sometimes this is to describe a concept which does not exist in a culture. Other times it might just be because the word can be used to imply some connection or connotation with its parent culture. One example of this would be the (now mostly unused) word “nabob“. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this term was used to refer to white men whose wealth came from business ventures (read: “exploiting”) in India and other colonies. The word came from an Urdu title for a governmental official. In Britain it was mostly used with a negative connotation, as these former commoners suddenly had wealth and political power, which they might use in corrupt ways. Interestingly, a contraction of the word gives us “Nob Hill“, a neighborhood in San Francisco which was home to many wealthy and famous families (and is still ranked the 34th highest-income neighborhoods by Wikipedia).

The primary subject of today’s post falls into the same category as the previous example. However, it is still in very common use today. In fact, this one word is used to describe a whole genre of video games. Of course, I am referring to the big man himself, “tycoon“. Now, if you think back to your grade school grammar lessons, you might realize that that word does not seem to follow any of our classic Latin or Greek roots. It also doesn’t really seem similar to words from French, Spanish, or other European languages. And that is because it comes to us all the way from Japan. The word itself is very close to its origin, 大君 (taikun), a title for a Japanese shogun. By the way, the kanji literally break down to “big man”. This word began being used in English in 1854, when Commodore Matthew Perry returned to America after forcing Japan to open its ports. John Hay and John Nicolay, two of Abraham Lincoln’s closest aids, and his first biographers, referred to him as “The Tycoon” in their writings. Now it is used to refer to a rich and powerful business owner.

I find the etymology of words to be quite fascinating, precisely because of stories like these. These words which we take for granted can sometimes contain many facets which showcase the rich interconnected culture of the world. Sometimes a word is worth a thousand history classes.


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