Thursday, September 26, 2019

Language of Confusion: Perfect Cell, Part III

This is a perfect way to lead into October because a lot of these cell words are surprisingly dark. Now, to remind everyone (as I assume you don’t obsessively retain this information like I do), cell comes from the Proto Indo European kel-, to cover/conceal/save. And that leads to some weird words.

First, the lightest and softest of the words this week (though no less weird): supercilious. It showed up in the mid sixteenth century from the classical Latin superciliosus, from supercilium, which means arrogance, but which literally means eyebrow. See, because arrogance involves raised eyebrows… yeah. The super- means above and the cilium means eyelid and is derived from celare, to hide, a word we talked about in part one that comes from kel-. So because eyebrows cover eyelids, we have supercilious.

Now we get into the weird stuff. Um, weirder. Occult showed up in the mid sixteenth century meaning secret, coming from the Middle French occulte and classical Latin occultus, which means hidden, secret or occult. The o comes from ob-, which means over, and the rest comes from celare. To hide/cover over. Oh, and guess what? This is not where cult comes from. That word has a completely different origin.

Next, kleptomania. Yep, this one, too. It showed up in 1830 (where it was also spelled with a C), coming from mania and and the Greek word kleptes, thieves. That word comes from kleptein, stealing, which is from the Proto Indo European klep-, which is related to kel-. You conceal/save something you steal, right?

I bet you didn’t think apocalypse would be here, but yes, it is. It showed up in the late fourteenth century meaning revelation or disclosure. It comes from the Church Latin apocalypsis, from the Greek apokalyptein, reveal. The apo- means off or away from and the kalyptein means covered, and is from kel-. So it’s away from hiding, to reveal, to apocalypse.

Finally today, we’re looking at hell. Yep, this is where it derived from. It came from the Old English hell (also spelled hel or helle), where it meant “where sinners go”. It’s from the Proto Germanic haljo, the underworld, a “concealed place”. Which is how it came from kel-.

Wild, huh?

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Hell. Hell? Really, hell? That I did not expect.

  2. I will never understand English... It makes no sense!

  3. Busy week. I have no smart comment.
    I did have a word question, but I've forgotten it.


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