I'm interested in words, from any language, whose etymological origin 'exposes' superstitious or scientifically obsolete beliefs.

For example, the English disaster comes from Latin dis- + astro, meaning literally bad star or ill-starred. This 'exposes' Roman astrological beliefs. Similarly, the English lunatic comes from the Latin luna, meaning moon.

Another example is the English malaria from Italian mala + aria, meaning bad air.

Are there other examples of words like this, where evidence of ancient beliefs is embedded in everyday words?

  • What about David Bowie is dead? Doesn't this presuppose a belief in life after death? If death is the end of the person, then there is no longer any such person as David Bowie, so he can't possibly be dead. I wouldn't want to get into whether believing in life after death is 'superstitious or scientifically obsolete', but it seems to me that such a belief is embedded in this everyday construction.
    – user23078
    Mar 5, 2019 at 7:16
  • @Minty, no, I don't think that's relevant. The question asks specifically for words, not for sentences.
    – K--
    Mar 5, 2019 at 9:20
  • Specifically words in English (native or loans) or any language?
    – Midas
    Mar 5, 2019 at 13:03
  • @Midas Suggestions from any language are welcome!
    – K--
    Mar 5, 2019 at 17:51
  • @daisy, Minty did suggest a word, "dead", although I don't agree with the reasoning, I find the word still interesting. Its root, *dhew-, is reflected only in Germanic, Celtic, Albanian and Armenian, as far as I can see, that's weird at least. The traditional reconstruction coincides with "to flow, run", which reminds of the styx and metaphors about time running, so maybe there is a mythic side to it, though that could be ancient folk etymology changing an older root, e.g. the one Kroonen proposes, *dhuH-; that's similar to "to be", *bhuH-. Not to mentiin egyptian Thoth.
    – vectory
    Mar 5, 2019 at 22:33

4 Answers 4


Plenty of medical words (and not just in English, I think). Some examples:


Humo(u)r, and more specifically sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholy.


As well as medical words, there are words from other sciences, such as chemistry. Names of elements come from various sources but some are related to religious or mythological beliefs, the most 'everyday' being:

Titanium, from the Titans of Greek mythology, denoting their strength;

Uranium and Plutonium, from the Roman gods Uranus and Pluto;

Vanadium and Thorium, from the Norse goddess, Vanadis (Freya) and god Thor;

Cobalt and Nickel, their ores are found with silver and copper ores respectively but were not considered by the old miners as having the same value; they believed that the silver and copper had been tainted by kobolds (goblins) or by Nick, the devil.

  • I like to think Ger. Urahne (ancient forebearers) derives from Uranos, though I can't prove it and don't assume just a single influence for the word anyhow.
    – vectory
    Mar 5, 2019 at 22:45

An example in Riffian is Taslit n unzar meaning rainbow, but literally it means The fiancee of Anzar. Anzar was a rain-god in the old Berber mythology.


If you accept hyphenation, then there is sun-worshipper, a word that is now used for someone who enjoys sunbathing, but arguably this meaning would not have gained currency had it not been originally used for someone who worships the sun as a deity. (Definitions from Collins online).

  • Much of the weight lies on worship, which can have worldly connotations, therefore it apperas merely and very transparently figurative. Still a nice combination. Maybe there's more in "wor-", "worth" to be discovered, as the semantic change from "to turn" is not obvious. Sun on the other hand supposedly has meant the same, in different wordforms, for millenia. For worth, Wert I like to compare vert. Is prayer for the sun to turn up a thing?
    – vectory
    Mar 5, 2019 at 22:43

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