Words with a Mysterious Past

How well do we know…the words we know?

There are some words that we are used every day. For example, if you are in Italy – surrounded by Tuscan hills and the Italian language – you will often hear people addressing each other as “ragazzo” (boy) or “idiota” (idiot). We are so used to these words that we never wonder how they originated; they are there and we just use them. However, if we just took some time to do so, our question could lead us to surprising results. That is what happened to me when – out of sheer curiosity (and boredom) – I decided to wonder where words like the above-mentioned “ragazzo” and “idiota” came from.


As we can read here, the word “idiota” comes from the Ancient Greek ἰδιώτης (idiotes), which means “a private person as opposed to a magistrate, ruler, king”. It was only a thousand years later that it began to be used in the sense of “uneducated or ignorant person”.

As for “ragazzo”, the question about its origin is still an object of heated debate. However, most linguists argue that it comes from the Arabic word raqqa sò, referring to a boy who delivers messages, which is still used in the Magreb region in the sense of “postman”. Most likely, the Arabic word came to Italy through Sicily in the 14th Century. Another commonly used word deriving from Arabic is “assassino” (murderer), which comes from the word Ḥashshāshīn (users of hashish), indicating an 8th Century’s militant Ismailitic sect in the Middle East. The members of this sect – after having made use of huge quantities of hashish – carried out selective eliminations of prominent rival figures; that is why – the origins of the word forgotten – the term has taken the meaning of “professional murderer”.

Lastly in this first series of curious etymologies – we look at the word “pupilla” (pupil). This word comes from the diminutive of the Latin word “pupa” (doll), “pupula”, whose diminutive, in turn, is “pupilla”. At this point, one may be naturally led to wonder what link could be between a doll and the dark circular opening in the centre of the iris of the eye; the answer is that the image that can be seen reflected in the eye is very small if compared to the human body, and that is why the Romans associated it with a doll.
Interesting, isn´t it? These are just a few examples of how fascinating words can be, but I am sure that every word has a story to tell. All we have to do is buy a good etymological dictionary.

[Italiano]

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