Have you ever wondered where English words come from?

There are a whopping 171,476 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. From aardvark to zyzzyva, words come in all shapes and sizes.

In this post we’ll explore some of the mechanisms through which words are born and we’ll learn some interesting ‘word histories’ along the way!


Words abbreviated

An acronym is a word made up of the first letter of other words. For sure you’ll have seen ‘LOL’ (laugh out loud) and ‘ASAP’ (as soon as possible), but there are many other examples in the English language, old and new.

In fact, some quite common words are abbreviations in disguise. For example, ‘radar’ and the ‘scuba’ in scuba-diving are both acronyms. The first comes from ‘RAdio Detection And Ranging’ and the second stands forSelf-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus’. Both terms have been around for more than 50 years.

Since the invention of text messaging or Short Message Systems (SMS), there has been an explosion of acronyms. There are so many new ones, it’s hard to keep up!

What do you think these ones mean?


  • IMHO
  • NSFW
  • LMK

(answers at the end of the article)*


Words combined

English belongs to the Germanic family of languages. One of the things Germanic languages have in common is a profound love of compound words. These are words consisting of two (or more) smaller words.

When it comes to compound words, the Germans lead the way. See if you can say this one without stopping to breathe!


(See more about this word in Wikipedia)

Why say something in 10 words when you can say it in one?! OK, so this is an extreme example, but English is full of compounds.

Here are some of our all-time favourites:


  • Bookworm – someone devoted to reading
  • Daydream – a series of nice thoughts that distract your attention from the present
  • Ladybird – a little beetle, typically red or yellow with black spots
  • Skyscraper – a tall building with many floors
  • Underdog – a competitor with a small chance of winning

Words from sounds

Onomatopoeia – a complicated term for a very simple concept. It comes from Greek, via Latin, and literally means ‘word-making’. More specifically, it refers to the formation of a word from a sound.

There are many verbs in English that come from the sound you make when doing this action. Try reading these ones out loud – do you know them all?


  • Burp /bɜːp/
  • Cough /kɒf/
  • Sneeze /sniːz/
  • Spit /spɪt/
  • Thump /θʌmp/
  • Whisper /ˈwɪspə/

Of course, English isn’t the only language that creates words from sounds. In fact, some are incredibly similar between languages. One of the best examples of a ‘universal onomatopoeia’ comes from the world of ornithology.

The cuckoo, a medium-sized bird, is famous for two things. Firstly, for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests (very cheeky). Secondly, for its distinct call, from which it gets its name. No matter what language you speak, the chances are that the name for this bird will be more or less the same.


Language Name for ‘cuckoo’
Azerbaijani ququ
Basque kuku
Italian cuculo
Kazakh көкек
Turkish guguk


However, this is not the case for all sound words. From one country to another, the noises that animals don’t change all that much. But, for some reason, there’s enormous variety in how animal noises are represented across different languages. Check out this cool video about it!



Words from brands

We live in a material world and this is reflected in language. Sometimes companies and products gain so much popularity that a specific brand name becomes the general word for an object or action.

Have you ever heard someone go into a stationery shop and ask for ‘multi-coloured, sticky squares of paper’? No, we simply say Post-it Notes.

How about taking a ‘insulating vacuum storage flask’ on a camping holiday? It’s a lot easier to call it a Thermos.

So, the next time someone asks you a silly question, just tell them to Google it!

If you enjoyed reading about where words come from, you might find this post interesting – Myths and Mysteries of the English Language.

Glossary for Language Learners


Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.

Whopping (adj): very large.

Aardvark (n): a nocturnal mammal from Africa.

Zyzzyva (n): a South American beetle.

To stand for (pv): to be an abbreviation for.

To keep up (pv): to move at the same speed as something else.

Ornithology (n): the scientific study of birds

The chances are (exp): it is likely.

Stationery shop (n): a shop where you can buy writing materials and office supplies.


adj = adjective

n = noun

Pv = phrasal verb

exp = expression


*answers to the acronyms…

IMHO: ‘in my humble opinion’ can be used when leaving comments on websites).

NSFW: ‘not safe for work’ indicates that an article or video is not appropriate for the workplace.

LMK: ‘let me know’ is a relaxed way of asking for information.

MTFBWY: ‘may the force be with you’ is an epic way to wish someone good luck!

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