The creators of Etymologic! call it “the toughest word game on the web,” and for all I know they may be right.

In this etymology game you’ll be presented with 10 randomly selected etymology (word origin) or word definition puzzles to solve; in each case the word or phrase is highlighted in bold, and a number of possible answers will be presented. You need to choose the correct answer to score a point for that question. Beware! The false answers will often also seem quite plausible, and some of the true answers are hard to believe, but we have documentation!

I was pretty smug after the first two, which gave me no trouble, but the next two stumped me, and I sweated out my 8/10. Mind you, I’m not sure they’re always on firm ground with their etymologies, but the quibbles are minor; if you like this sort of thing, you’ll love this. I got it from Avva, who got 10 out of 10 on his first try, damn him; furthermore, in his comment thread someone (in the course of an argument about the supposed origin of French bistro(t) from Russian bystro ‘quickly’) linked to the Trésor de la langue française informatisé (TLF), a fantastic resource for French lexicography.


  1. Bob Violence says:

    Well, I can’t read most of the comments over at Avva, so I’ll gloat here:
    10 out of 10, baby!
    This game has been the first, and possibly only, practical application of my graduate study in classics: about seven questions had something to do with Latin or Greek.

  2. Rats! Only 9. Didn’t know what “I’m from Missouri” meant. Not, you know, an American.

  3. 8/10 here — I missed “puny” (which comes from french “puis ne”) and “zymoscope” (which is a type of yeast). My uncanny ability to do well on multiple-choice tests served me well; 7 of my 10 responses (including the 2 wrong ones) were guesses.

  4. Anthony Hope says:

    8/10. But I didn’t get asked about either “zymoscope” or Missouri. So there’s obviously some randomization of a bank of more than 10 questions going on.

  5. Yeah, every time you hit Refresh you get a new set.

  6. Yeah, my questions were all different. 8/10, as good as I’d expect. And one etymology (“Mustang” = “wild horse” from the Tibetan) is suspect. The English clearly traces back to the Spanish and the Spanish etymology (before 1500) is listed as uncertain. I can imagine links between Spain and Tibet through the Mongols and Turks, but they all seem highly implausible.

  7. 6/10 and proud of it!

  8. Tatyana says:

    Alas, I was told “to go study” with my pitiful 6/10… That “polluka”(sp?) question really got me.

  9. Zizka: Thanks for the “mustang” info. I was told I had it wrong on my second try at the test, and hadn’t gotten around to looking it up; now that I have, I declare them officially Full of Shit. Take that, Etymologic!

  10. The source of the error may be that there is a Tibetan place “Mustang” that has its own unique kind of horse, but it’s not a US Plains “mustang” in any way.

  11. Nine out of ten, but I think I got all the easy questions.
    As for bystro, my mnemonic when I first learned the word was that Russian cafe service was so slow they thought French bistro service was fast. I had no idea that they were related in any way other than coincidence.

  12. They may not be. The story is that the Russian troops who invaded Paris in Napoleon’s day hollered “Bystro, bystro!” at waiters; the sticking point is that the French word is first attested 70 years or so later.

  13. I know that bistrot very well. Don’t waste your money, strictly a tourist trap.

  14. Graham Asher says:

    Easy apart from the Americanese (‘boondocks’) etc. They should improve their spelling, too.

  15. 7/10 on my first go: satan, corduroy, sheriff, ballot, infatuate, potboiler, mortgage I got right; aisle, chip on the shoulder, spittin’ image I got wrong. And thanks for pointing me to the TLF, which is fantastique, as you rightly say.

  16. Silly test. “Best Boy”??!! What has that to do with etymology? I didn’t find any answers, so I don’t know which one I missed. Perhaps that boy.

  17. 8/10; 10/10; 9/10. I’m with Jeremy–like all multiple-choice tests, this one is a test of your ability to take multiple-choice tests. As a test of knowledge of etymology, however, it’s highly suspect.
    Digression: I’ve always been gifted at multiple-choice tests. For much of my period of formal education, I was confused with a natural genius. It turns out that in the wider arena of life, this particular skill is of little practical value, and I’m just a regular Joe with a decent vocabulary who’s good at quizzes.
    If I really were a genius, I’d could articulate the mechanics of multiple-choice tests in such a way as to render the pseudoscience of intelligence testing obsolete. But alas, I’m not.

  18. Brian Ua Nuallain says:

    This should be called an Ego Boost for B.N. Trivial etymology is about the only thing I do consistently well. 9/10, 10/10.

  19. HP: There’s probably a living to be made in GRE, MCAT, LSAT, etc, if you can look like an average white 25 year old male.

  20. 10, 10, 8. Though I thought the origin of cocktail was in doubt.

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