While putting together a Celtiadur post today about words for six and related things in Celtic languages, I noticed that in Cornish a semester is hweghmis and that it’s c’hwec’h-miz in Breton. Both mean “six months”. This lead me to wonder about the origins of the word semester. Does it have anything to do with six?

public lecture, local historical personage revisited

In English the word semester means half a school year or academic year, or a period or term of six months. It was borrowed from the German Semester (semester), from the New Latin sēmestris (lasting six months), from sex (six) and mēnsis (month) [source].

In the UK, academic years used to be divided into three terms. However, these days many UK universities divide their academic years into two semesters, like in the USA.

Another word for term is trimester, which also means a period of (about) three months, or a (financial) quarter. It was borrowed from the French trimestre (quarter [period of 3 months], term, trimester [of pregnancy]), from the Latin trimēstris (three months), from trēs (three) and mēnsis (month) [source].

Incidentally, the word six comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European *swéḱs (six) [source]. Words from the same root include:

  • sixfold = having six component parts; times/multiplied by six
  • sixsome = a group of six persons or things
  • senary = of sixth rank or order; of, pertaining to, or based on six.
  • sexennium = a period of six years
  • sextant = a navigational device for deriving angular distances between objects so as to determine latitude and longitude; one sixth of a circle or disc
  • sextet = a group of six people or things; a composition for six voices or instruments; a group of six singers or instrumentalists.
  • sextuple = a sixfold amount, having six parts, having six beats to a bar
  • sextuplet = a group of six objects; one of a group of six persons or animals born from the same mother during the same birth; a group of six notes played in the time of four
  • hexad = a group of six; an element or radical with the combining power of six units
  • hexaglot = in six languages
  • hexahex = a polyhex composed of six hexagons
  • hexahectaenneacontakaiheptagon = a polygon with 697 sides. Coined humorously to describe the shape of the US state of Colorado. [source]

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Desks, Discs and Discos

What links the words desk, dais, disc, disco, dish and discus?

My studio / office
My desk in my office/studio

The answer is, they share the same roots: the Latin word discus (a discus, quoit, dish-shaped object, disc of a sundial), but arrived in English via different routes [source].

Desk comes from the Middle English deske (a reading desk or lecturn), from the Medieval Latin desca, from the Latin discus [source].

Dais (a raised platform in a room for a high table, a seat of honour, a throne, or other dignified occupancy) comes from the Middle English deis (podium, dais, high table), from the Anglo-Norman deis (dais, high seat/table, table of honour), from the Old French deis/dois, from the Latin discum, the accusative singular of discus [source].

Disc (a thin, flat, circular plate or similar object; a gramophone record) comes from the French disque (disc, discus, record, disk), from the Latin discus [source].

Disco, is an abbreviation of discoteque, which was borrowed from the French discothèque (discotheque, nightclub), from disque (disc, record) and bibliothèque, (library). It originally it meant “a library of discs/records”. Disque comes from the Latin discus [source].

Dish comes from the Middle English disch (dish, plate, bowl, discus), from the Old English disċ (plate, dish), from the Proto-West Germanic *disk (dish) from the Latin discus [source].

Discus comes directly from the Latin discus, from the Ancient Greek δίσκος (dískos – disc, dish, round mirror), the origins of which are uncertain [source].

Disk is used interchangeably with disc, and means more or less the same things. However, it comes straight from the Ancient Greek δίσκος [source].

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Chez Nous

The French word chez [ʃe] is used to mean ‘to, at, in or into a home, office etc’. For example, chez moi means ‘at my house’, and chez le dentiste means ‘at the dentist’.


It can also mean ‘to, at or in a country or other place’, e.g. une spécialité bien de chez nous = ‘a true specialty of our country’. In the title of this post I use chez nous to indicate we are in the world of Omniglot.

Other meanings include: ‘in or among a group of people or things of the same type’, e.g. chez les chiens = ‘among dogs’, or ‘in the work of an author or artisit’ – chez Baudelaire = ‘in Baudelaire’s work’ [source].

It has been borrowed into English and just means ‘at the home of’ [source].

Chez comes from the Middle French chez (in the house/home of), from the Old French chies (house), from the Latin casa (hut, cottage, cabin, small farm, dwelling, house), the origins of which are uncertain [source].

The French word case [kaz], which means a box or a square in a board game, and used to mean a hut, cabin or shack, comes from the same roots, as do words like casino in English (via Italian), and casa, which means house in most Romance languages [source].

Another word for house in Spanish is hogar [oˈɡaɾ], which appeared in my Spanish lessons today and inspired this post. It also means fireplace, hearth, fireside, furnace, home, home life, family life, housekeeping, homeland or household.

Is it used more in some Spanish-speaking countries than in others?

It comes from the Old Spanish fogar, from the Vulgar Latin focāris, from the Latin focus (fireplace, hearth, brazier, house, family), the origin of which is uncertain [source].

Related words in Spanish include hogareño (home, family, fireside; (of a person) home-loving, stay-at-home), hoguera (bonfire, blaze) and hogaraza (large loaf, cottage loaf).

Related words in other languages include focus and foyer in English, words for fire in Romance languages, such as fuego in Spanish and feu in French [source], and a Greek word for brazier, φουφού [fuˈfu], via Turkish and Italian [source].


On Tuesday night I was at my usual Welsh folk music session having a nice time, then unfortunately a guy fell over and banged his head – he was a bit unsteady on his feet, and had drunk quite a bit. He was okay and has apparently recovered now, but it put a bit of a dampener on the evening.

A dampener is a device that moistens or dampens something, or a discouraging event or remark. Synonyms include buzzkill, killjoy and spoilsport. Do you have any others?


It comes from the Middle English dampen (to stifle, suffocate), from the Proto-Germanic *dampaz (vapour), from *dimbaną (to fog, smoke) [source].

Last night when talking about this incident in French, I learnt the phrase gâcher qch, which means to to a dampener/damper on something. Gâcher on its own means to spoil, ruin, muck up, bungle, waste, squander (chances), temper (plaster) or mix (mortar). It appears in phrases like gâcher le paysage (to be a blot of the landscape) and gâcher (to kill a party [source].

Gâcher comes from the Old French gaschier (to spol, spoil, waste), from guaschier/waschier (to wash, soak), from the Frankish *waskan (to wash, bathe), from the Proto-Germanic *waskaną (to wash), from the Proto-Indo-European *wod- (wet) [source].

Words from the same roots include wash in English, wassen (to wash, clean) in Dutch, guazzàre (to wallow) in Italian, and vaske (to wash, shampoo, launder, shuffle) in Danish [source].


An interesting French I learnt yesterday was hameçonnage, which means phishing or a phishing scam – that is “The malicious act of keeping a false website or sending a false e-mail with the intent of masquerading as a trustworthy entity in order to acquire sensitive information, such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details.” or “The act of circumventing security with an alias.” [source].

rebar hook

It comes from hameçonner (to attract and seduce by a deceptive appearance, to phish), from hameçon (fishhook), from the Old French ameçon, from the Latin hāmus (hook, barb), possibly from the Proto-Germanic *hamô (clothes, skirt, fishnet, harness, collar) [source].

The word hameçon also appears in the expression mordre à l’hameçon, which means to take the bait or rise to the bait, or literally “to bite the hook” [source].

Another word for a scam, swindle or fraud in French is escroquerie, and a phishing scam is escroquerie par hameçonnage [source].

Escroquerie comes from escroquer (to swindle, cheat, defraud), from the Italian scroccare (to scrounge, sponge, cadge, blag) from scrocco (scrounging, sponging), from the Old High German *scurgo, from scurgen (to knock over, push aside), from or related to the Proto-Germanic *skeran (to cut, shear), from the Proto-Indo-European *(s)ker- (to cut) [source].

The English word shear comes from the same roots, as does the French word déchirer (to tear, rip up) [source].

Half a Story

A way to say excuse me in Irish is gabh mo leithscéal, which is pronounced [ˌɡɔ mə ˈlʲɪʃceːl̪ˠ] or something like that. If you’re talking to two or more people, you would say gabhaigí mo leithscéal. There are similar phrases in Scottish Gaelic – gabh mo leisgeul, and Manx – gow my leshtal. These mean literally “take my excuse”.

Gabh mo leithscéal (take my half story

The first word in these phrases comes from the Old Irish gaibid [ˈɡavʲiðʲ] (to grasp or receive), from the Proto-Celtic *gabyeti (to grab, seize, take or hold), from Proto-Indo-European *gʰeh₁bʰ- (to grab or take) [source].

Related words in other languages include gafael (to hold, grasp, grip) in Welsh, gavel (capacity, grasp) in Cornish, gable in English, and words for to have in Romance languages, such as avere in Italian and avoir in French [source].

The second word in these phrases means my, and the third one means excuse. The words for excuse come from the Old Irish leithscél / leithsgéal / leithsgéul (excuse), from leth (half, side, direction) and scél (story), so an excuse is a “half story” [source].

A related word in Irish is leithscéalach (fond of excuses, apologetic). There’s a similar word in Scottish Gaelic: leisgeulach (excusing, apologetic) and in Manx: leshtallagh (apologetic, apologist, excuser, extenuating).

Seeding Discord

Yesterday I learnt an interesting phrase in French – semer la zizanie, which means to stir up ill-feeling, to mess around/about, to drive a wedge (between) or to wreak/raise havoc [source].

J. Zizanie des marais P8100001 2

The word semer means to sow, spread, scatter, lose or shake off. You can also semer le doute (cast doubts), semer la panique (spread panic) or semer la discorde (sow/seed discord, foster division) [source].

It comes from the Latin sēmināre (to sow), from sēminō (I plant, sow), from sēmen (seed, graft, offspring, cause), from the Proto-Italic *sēmen (seed), from the Proto-Indo-European *séh₁mn̥ (seed), from seh₁- (to sow, plant). English words from the same roots include season, seed, seminar and sow [source].

Zizanie means discord or ill-feeling, and comes from the Latin zīzania (tares, cockle), from zizā̆nium (tares, cockle, darnel, jealousy, discord), from the Ancient Greek ζῐζᾰ́νῐον (zizánion – darnel, ryegrass), from the Aramaic זזניא‎, from the Sumerian 𒍣𒍝𒀭 (zizān – wheat) [source].

Words from the same roots include زِوَان‎ (ziwān – darnel, ryegrass) in Arabic, zizzania (darnel, tare, discord) in Italian, and cizaña (darnel, tare, dissension, enmity) [source].

Tare is a vetch or any of the tufted grasses of genus Lolium [source]. Darnel is a species of ryegrass of the genus Lolium temulentum [source], and cockle is another name for the same plant [source].

Incidentally, the word wreak, which only appears in the phrase to wreak havoc (to cause damage, disruption or destruction), and a few other phrases, means to cause harm, afflict, inflict, harm, injure; to chasten, chastise, punish, smite, and used to mean to inflict or take vengeance on, or to take vengeance for [source].

Water Trumpets

Last night while talking about the weather in French, as you do, one expression that came up was une trombe d’eau, which means a cloudbust, downpour or waterspout [source]. There have been several of these this week.

The word trombe [tʁɔ̃b] on its own means waterspout or whirlwind [source]. It comes from the Italian tromba (trumpet, horn, bugler, well, shaft), possibly from the Frankish *trumba (trumpet), which is of imitative origin [source].

Other phrases featuring trombe include:

  • entrer en trombe = to burst in, storm in
  • sortir en trombe = to burst out, storm out
  • partir en trombe = to accelerate away
  • passer en trombe = to zoom past, hurtle past

A related word from the same roots is trompe [tʁɔ̃p], which means a trumpet, the trunk of an elephant [source] or a squinch (a small arch, corbelling, etc, across an internal corner of a tower, used to support a superstructure such as a spire) [source].

Shiny brass 3

Another word with the same roots is tromper [tʁɔ̃.pe] (to deceive, cheat on, disapoint, elude), which comes from the Old French tromper (to tramp, trump, delude), from trompe (horn, trump, trumpet) [source].

The English word trumpet also comes from the same roots, via the Old French trompette (trumpet), a diminutive or trompe [source]. As does the word trombone, via the Italian trombone (trombone, annoying or boring person), from tromba (trumpet) and -one (augmentative suffix) [source].

The trump an elephant makes, which is also a slang word for flatulence in the UK, and used to mean a trumpet, comes from the Old French French trompe (horn, trump, trumpet) [source]. However trump as in a trump card or a suit in cards is thought to come from the French triomphe (triumph), or the Old French triumphe, from the Latin triumphus (a hymn in honour of Bacchus, a triumph or celebration), from the Old Latin triumpus, from the Etruscan *𐌈𐌓𐌉𐌀𐌌𐌐𐌄 (*θriampe), from the Ancient Greek θρίαμβος (thríambos – a hymn to Dionysus) [source].


The word myriad [ˈmɪɹi.æd/ˈmɪɹi.əd] means a countless number or multitude, and in the past it meant 10,000. It comes from the French myriade (myriad, 10,000), from the Latin Latin myrias (10,000), from the Ancient Greek μυριάς (muriás – countless, 10,000), from μῡρῐ́ος (mūríos – numberless, countless, infinite) [source].

Peering through the dust
A myriad of stars

The use of 10,000 to mean countless or infinite happens in other languages as well. For example in Chinese 万 [萬] (wàn) means 10,000 or a great number [source]. The same character (man) in Japanese means 10,000, a myriad, everything, all or various. When pronounced ban it means completely, absolutely or totally [source].

Do other languages do something similar?

Other English words that refer to a large but unspecified number include um(p)teen or umpty, which come from umpty (a colloquial name for a dash in Morse Code used as World War I army slang) and -teen [source].

Also zillion, gazillion, bazillion, jillion, bajillion and squillion [source].

Do you have any others?


The Dutch word ruimen [ˈrœy̯mə(n)] means to clean up, to clear or to remove. It comes from the Middle Dutch rumen, from the Old Dutch *rūmen, from the Proto-Germanic *rūmijaną (to make room, to clear), from *rūmaz (roomy, spacious, open) and *-janą (a suffix that makes adjectives) [source].

De mannen die onze rommel opruimen

Words from the same roots include ream (to enlarge a hole), and rim in English; arrimer (to stow, secure) in French; räumen (to vacate, move out of, clear, shift) in German; and rymma (to hold, escape, flee, evacuate) in Swedish [source].

When ruimen is combined with suffixes, the meaning changes somewhat:

  • afruimen = to clean up, to pick up, to clear (a table), clearing
  • inruimen = to put away, to fit in, to accept, to load (a dishwasher)
  • leegruimen = to clean out, clearing out
  • ontruimen = to clear, to evacuate, to vacate
  • opruimen = to clean up, to clear, to tidy up
  • puinruimen = to clear the debris, rubble
  • uitruimen = to clean out, to clear out, to unload, unloading
  • verruimen = to boarden, to expland, to extend
  • wegruimen = to get rid of, clearing away, disposal

Related words include ruim [rœy̯m], which means spacious, roomy, large, ample, generous; more than, over, and also the cargo hold (of a ship) or a wide, open space; and ruimte, which means a space, room or area, and also (outer) space. A spaceship is a ruimteschip or ruimtevaartuig (“space faring thing”), and an astronaut is a ruimtevaarder (“space farer”), who might go on a ruimtewandeling (spacewalk) [source].

I’m good a tidying up (opruimen) and putting things away (inruimen), but not so good at getting rid of things (wegruimen). I tend to accumulate a lot of things, thinking they might come in handy one day. Occasionally I clear out the cupboards, drawers, sleeves and other places where such things tend to end up.

How tidy are you?

By the way, tidy is cognate with the Dutch word tijdig (timely, in/on time), and used to mean in good time or timely in English. The Dutch for tidy is netjes [source].

In Wenglish (Welsh English), tidy! as an exclamation means fine or splendid, a tidy spell is quite a long time, a tidy few is quite a number, a tidy feller is a decent chap, probably ‘good with his hands’, a tidy swill is a wash involving at least the face and hands, and talk tidy! means speak properly! [source].

Some details provided by Anna Rutten