Words Origins Quiz

December 2020

Image by Alexandru Zdrobău

From a Greek word meaning "nearsighted" or, literally, "blinking to shut the eyes" as nearsighted people do.  It means narrow-minded or shortsighted.  

The word is:  Myopic.

Phrase Origins Quiz

November 2020

Image by David Aler

From a proverb first found in print in the 16th century. The analogy is a drowning person desperately and futilely grabbing for the thin reeds that grow on the riverbank. 

The phrase is:  Grasping at straws.

Word Origins Quiz

October 2020


From a Latin word meaning "frighten." Originally this word meant "to cause terror," and by the 19th century it was used to describe something "severe or excessive." By 1930, this latter meaning had led to a new sense of the word that wasn't the least bit scary. 

The word is:  Terrific.

Word Origins Quiz

September 2020

Image by Tiffany Tertipes

This election related word from the mid-15th century comes from a Latin word meaning "vow" or "promise made to a god."

The word is:  Vote.

Word Origins Quiz

August 2020


The harpsichord was one of the most important instruments in European music from the 16th until the mid-18th century. Its strings are plucked by leather or quill points connected with the keys. In 1709, Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a new harpsichord that allowed for a much wider range of volume and longer-lasting notes. Clearly not a marketing genius, Cristofori called his invention “harpsichord with soft and loud,” which was shortened in English to this name by the 1770s.

The word is:  Piano.

"The original Italian that translates to "harpsichord with soft and loud" is "gravicembalo col piano e forte."

Word Origins Quiz

July 2020


Originating from a Latin term meaning “pregnant animal” or “breeding female,” this word was later generalized to mean “womb” or “source or origin.” In ancient Rome, it also referred to a plant whose seeds were used for producing other plants.

Over time, the word has developed both a figurative and a technical meaning of something within which, or from which, something else originates, develops or takes form. It is used in science and mathematics, and was even the title of a famous science fiction movie series.

The word is:  Matrix.

Word Origins Quiz

June 2020

Rio Beach Promenade

The first of these two words has roots meaning “to threaten forward” and originally meant “to drive animals ahead.” In the 16th century, in Middle French, the word evolved to mean “a leisurely stroll” or “a place for a walk,” and eventually “a walkway by the ocean.” In the late 19th century, this word and the second — a shortened version of the first — became the name for an annual Ivy League tradition called “presentation week,” during which formal dress and dancing were accompanied by a concert and other activities.

The words are:  Promenade and Prom.

Read a New York Times 1865 story about "Presentation Week" at Yale College here

Phrase & Word Origins Quiz May 2020


In the late 1800s, the word was used to describe a sports referee. That term led to a metaphorical phrase meaning “to reveal a wrongdoing.” The original word now refers to the person exposing a crime or misdeed.

The phrase and word are:  Blow the whistle and whistleblower.

Word Origins Quiz April 2020


In 1920, writer Karel Čapek debuted a play called R.U.R., about machines that performed difficult, dull or dangerous work for people. Čapek got the name for these machines from his brother Josef, whose inspiration was a Czech word meaning “servitude” or “forced labor.”

The word is:  Robot

Read more about the answer here

Word Origins Quiz March 2020

Doctors with Bacteriological Protection

This word is from the mid 17th century and is the combination of two Greek words meaning "all people."

The word is:  Pandemic

Word Origins Quiz February 2020

pot of boiling water.jpg

This word is derived from a Latin verb meaning “to bubble out.” It originally referred to bubbling or boiling like a pot of water. Its figurative meaning of “exuberant” was first recorded in the 1600s.

The word is:  Ebullient

Phrase Origins Quiz January 2020


The key word in this phrase comes from a Latin word for “stake” and also referred to a fence (a barrier made of stakes). The word pole comes from the same source. By the end of the 14th century, the word took on additional senses, including a place where one was not allowed to go. Eventually, probably in the 1700s, this idiom took on its figurative meaning of “outside the limits of propriety.”

The phrase is:  Beyond the pale