Random finds while looking up other words in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate:
capoeira ‘a Brazilian dance of African origin’: Brazilian Portuguese, kind of martial art, ruffian skilled in this art, fugitive slave living in the forest, from capão island of forest in a clear-cut area, from Tupi ka’apáũ, from ka’á forest + paũ round
caponata ‘a relish of chopped eggplant and assorted vegetables’: Italian, from Italian dialect (Sicily) capunata, sailor’s dish of biscuit steeped in oil and vinegar, chopped vegetables served similarly, from Catalan caponada dry bread soaked in oil and vinegar, perhaps from capó capon
trocar ‘a sharp-pointed surgical instrument’: from French trocart, alteration of trois-quart from trois three + carre edge
trona ‘a gray-white or yellowish-white monoclinic mineral’: Swedish, probably from Arabic natrun natron


  1. A nice bit of folk etymologising in “trois carre” > “trois-quart”. Lovely.

  2. The trocars I see are rarely three edged, but they are indeed very sharp.
    The first time I was asked for a Bougee in surgery, I said, “Yeah, pull the other one.” But they weren’t kidding. It’s an esophageal dilator.

  3. Capoeira has a much disputed etymology.
    Here’s just three quite charming suggestions from the Wikipedia page at

    • The Portuguese word “capoeira” derives from the word capão, which translates as capon, a castrated rooster. The sport’s name may originate from this word since its moves resemble those of a rooster in a fight. “Capoeira” has several meanings, including any kind of pen where poultry is kept, a fowl similar to a partridge, and a basket worn on the head by soldiers defending a stronghold. “Capoeira” is also what people used to call a black inlander who mugged travelers.
    • Afro-Brazilian scholar Carlos Eugenio has suggested that the sport took its name from a large round basket called a capa commonly worn on the head by urban slaves selling wares.
    • The word could derive from two Tupi-Guarani words, [CAA] (“down, little”) and [PUOÊRA] (“grass”), referring to an area of forest that has been cleared by burning or cutting down. [CAÃ][PUOERA] was also a place used by fugitive slaves to attack slave transports.
    • Kongo scholar K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau has posited that “capoeira” could be derived from the Kikongo word kipura, a term used to describe a rooster’s movements in a fight and meaning to flutter, flit from place to place, struggle, fight, or flog.
  4. Actually, I think I’d call that four charming suggestions.
    And for the record, I’ve always thought capoeira movements look like those of a monkey.

  5. Capoeira has a much disputed etymology.
    It’s not just the etymology that’s disputed. The origins of the art are disputed too.
    And for the record, I’ve always thought capoeira movements look like those of a monkey.
    Well, some of it does happen to resemble the drunken monkey style of Chinese kung-fu…and in fact one of capoeira’ trademark techniques, the one-handed backflip, is called macaco. The funny thing is, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a monkey do a backflip like that. Stil, I know what you mean. The movements are strange when you first see them.

  6. marie-lucie says:

    1. It never ceases to amaze me that any word listed in an English dictionary (because it has appeared in English-language texts a certain number of times) is automatically counted as “English”, as in “English has a vocabulary of X thousand words” – a count artificially inflated by huge amounts of foreign words of extremely limited use in the language, designating realities which are part of foreign lands and cultures usually far removed from the experience of the vast majority of English speakers. Words are put in a dictionary so that readers unfamiliar with them can look them up and learn what they mean, or refresh their memory of how to spell them, etc. but does that justify including words like “capoeira” and “caponata” in the English word-count? To my mind, it would be appropriate to say “the XYZ dictionary of the English language LISTS X thousand words”, which does not mean quite the same as a blanket statement such as “English HAS X thousand words”.
    2. About “capoeira”: given the historical rules of derivation of the Portuguese language, I incline to think that the first definition given by Wikipedia is the right one, although the meaning may have been reinforced or altered by the similarity of some words in African languages. (The Tupi-Guarani ones look like “folk etymology”, an impression reinforced by the fact that there are two).
    The words for “castrated rooster” in the languages above and a few others all come from the Latin capo/caponis/etc with different endings but the stem is capon- with an -n-; most such words have lost the -n- in the course of Latin-to-Portuguese evolution. The ending -eira (masc. -eiro) is a very common Portuguese suffix, also with a Latin origin. The cap- part is also the same root as in the word meaning “head” in Latin, so it is not surprising that “capoeira” also referred to some kind of headdress. (What do the meanings “capon” and “head” have in common? – I would guess the “comb” on the head of a rooster, but this is just a guess).

  7. I’m sorry, but both of those—and the vast bulk of the words you’re objecting to—are genuine English words, used without explanation in English sentences and not even italicized (as is done with words still in the process of adoption). Like it or not, English is a voracious borrower, and believe me, lexicographers don’t have to go looking for foreign words to surreptitiously slip in to increase the count—it’s more a case of trying to decide how to winnow the vast numbers of words clamoring for attention.
    zhoen: That’s spelled bougie, by the way.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. on capoeira:
    The Robert dictionary gives a 17th century French word “caponnière” adapted from Italian caponniera, with an equivalent Spanish word “caponera” – those It and Sp words are exactly what one would expect as the equivalent of Ptg “capoeira” according to the historical evolution of these languages. The French word means ‘a protected path set in a dry ditch in a fortress’ [most likely between two fortified walls], but the original Italian and Spanish meaning is given as ‘capon cage’ – probably the soldiers sheltering in the ditch, below some kind of roof, felt cooped up there like capons in a cage. The military meaning agrees well with the idea that the adepts of “capoeira” – most likely a martial art at first – did not practic in public but in isolated places in the forest, hence the folk etymology links with similar-sounding Tupi-Guarani words referring to the forest.

  9. homerdalors says:

    (What do the meanings “capon” and “head” have in common? – I would guess the “comb” on the head of a rooster, but this is just a guess).
    I would suspect that the common factor is ‘testa’ bas Latin for ‘head’ which seems to be the source of the word ‘testicule’, ‘little head’

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Mr. Hat,
    I am sorry I seem to have touched a nerve, but if those four words are such a part of the English language, why do you feel the need to bring them specially to our attention? I was not talking about all the English words of non-Germanic origin, such as “attention” and “origin”, or even “pizza”, but words such as the ones you listed above, which although they may not always be italicized or otherwise singled out, would make a lot of people look for a large dictionary. Same thing for words often found in crossword puzzles, with definitions such as “old Persian coin”, “Hawaiian bird” and the like – do these really count as English words? (or French, Russian, etc words).
    According to the Robert dictionary, the Latin word “testiculus” was not a diminutive of “testa” but of “testis”, a word meaning “witness”: according to something I read, (I don’t remember where but it was by a recognized authority on classical or Indo-European culture), at a remote period, when solemnly swearing an oath (ex. in a trial) men put a hand on their testicles as their witnesses (rather than the Bible at a later period) – presumably the idea was that those were their most precious possessions and if not observing the oath they would attract divine wrath and risk losing them. The French words “témoin” and “témoignage” are from Latin “testimonium” (hence English “testimony”) which also has the same root.
    Returning to cap- words, “testa” could not be the common factor in those words as it is a totally different word with a different root: according to Emile Benveniste, who was an authority on Greek and Latin, the original meaning was “shell”, then “clay pot” and later “skull” then “head”. (The diminutive of “testa”, a feminine word, would have been “testicula”).
    Nomis, Zhoen: again according to the Robert, the “carre” which became “quart” in the French word “trocart” (adopted into English as “trocar”) does not mean “edge” but “angle” especially one that is close to a right angle (as in “carré” meaning “square”). A trocar is not something the average person gets to use or even see much of – I would guess that the working end has 3 sharp angles – can you describe what it looks likeÉ

  11. michael farris says:

    This literate native speaker has seen exactly one of the words on this list before, namely capoeira.
    I’d say that now it’s a full blown international word as its popularity in recent years means that it’s used in probably every national language in Europe (there are a couple of schools in the west Polish city I live in).
    The rest seem like marginal, specialized vocabulary. If I came across them in context I may or may not understand them. May or may not look for a dictionary, depending on how much I care.
    “He was prevented from ladling the caponata onto his hotdog by his companion who knew he was allergic to eggplants,” would tell me everything I need to know.
    “Life is just a bowl of caponata, she often repeated to herself,” would leave me pondering.
    I tend to agree with marie lucie, the fact that a dictionary has X amount of words is pointless if signficant majorities or majorities of don’t know or ever use some signficant percentage of the words in it. (This is secondary to the idea that “language X has Y number of words” is a vacuous, empty claim in the first place).

  12. Marie-Lucie, English has a rich vocabulary to deal with sailing and life on a sailing ship; thousands of words that the vast majority of native speakers today will never use or read. If you rule out words from a language on the basis that they may send native speakers to a dictionary, then you’re ruling out those words from English; and if they’re not English, then what are they? They’re not Dutch. And those people who have much to do with sailing still use much of them, they are not obsolete.
    Similarly with detailed medical vocabulary, or jargon of any field; lots of native speakers have no clue of the meaning of jokulhlaup or what saying that a bacterial culture is Gram-negative implies, but those terms nonetheless have meaning in English. Similarly with regional terms—I had no idea what ‘grits’ meant before visiting Florida, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t admit it as an English word.

  13. Marie-Lucie, could you clarify what it would mean, for a word, to “be a part” of language X? To take an example, are “taël” and “caïque” a part of the French language? I’m not sure I understand your criteria.

  14. I am also surprised by the inclusion of “capoeira”, because in my neck of the woods, it has become as common as “judo” or “kung-fu” (and much more than “vovinam viet vo dao” or “krav maga”).

  15. I am sorry I seem to have touched a nerve
    For heaven’s sake, you didn’t “touch a nerve,” you made an incorrect statement I felt obliged to respond to, since otherwise people reading the site might be left with the wrong impression. The personal acquaintance of any given speaker with a given word has nothing to do with whether it’s a part of the language. As Aidan points out, English is full of specialized vocabulary of all sorts, some borrowed, some not; do you, or anyone else, have the right to go through the dictionary striking out the words they don’t happen to know? In my capacity as a medical editor, I run across words every day I’ve never seen before and have to look up. Most of them aren’t borrowed, they’re created on the basis of the toolkit of Greek and Latin roots that scientists use for historical reasons, but they’re known to far fewer people than caponata or capoeira (both of which have been familiar to me for years).
    if those four words are such a part of the English language, why do you feel the need to bring them specially to our attention?
    Because they have interesting etymologies, as the title of the post should make clear.

  16. Oh, and I should add that the only reason pizza seems like such a clear example of an English word to you is that pizza has become a popular dish all over the world; if it had stayed confined to the New Haven-New York axis as a regional specialty, it would be as obscure as caponata outside that area — and yet millions of English speakers within that area would use it as part of their normal English communication, thinking of it just as they do any other English word. Bialy is a good example: you may not be familiar with the word, but in New York everyone knows it’s a kind of roll (and a very good one, too — go to Kossar’s, you’ll be in heaven). You seem to want to limit “English” to the few thousand words known to every speaker, which would reduce it to Basic English and make for a very boring language.

  17. Do cock fighters use capons? Isn’t a cock by definition not a capon, and vice versa?

  18. The etymological association between testis, witness, and testicle, is cute, but very controversial. Here’s Mr. OED on the anatomical testis:
    “[L.: etymology uncertain.
    An assumed identity with testis witness (quasi ‘the witness or evidence of virility’) is rejected by Walde, who suggests connexion with testa, pot, shell, etc. In 16th c. Fr., however, tesmoing ‘witness’ appears in this sense: see Godef. s.v.]”
    I could readily a believe a popular association between witnessing and the ballocks, but the sense development of testis (pot) to testis (head) makes sense of the transition from pot to gonad. The AHD, on the other hand, offers:
    “Another theory says that the sense of testicle in Latin testis is due to a calque, or loan translation, from Greek. The Greek noun parastates means “defender (in law), supporter” (para– “by, alongside,” as in paramilitary and –states from histanai, “to stand”). In the dual number, used in many languages for naturally occurring, contrasting, or complementary pairs such as hands, eyes, and ears, parastats had the technical medical sense “testicles,” that is “two glands side by side.” The Romans simply took this sense of parastates and added it to testis, the Latin word for legal supporter, witness. ”
    Which I like, actually–compare ‘epididymes’, ie. twins.

  19. I like it too; I had somehow missed that theory. Thanks for quoting it.

    Not always. But perhaps properly. Bougee/bougie. Medical companies play fast and loose with terminology, and medical folks are not the best spellers. But I did look it up before posting. Honestly.
    I have seen trocars that just have a point, some that are steel with a curved cutting edge, it varies considerably. There are even blunt trocars, the cutting point retracts after the initial pressure of incision.

  21. Capoeiristas, represent!
    There are few if any records of capoeira before Brazilian slaves’ emancipation. That’s one reason why the etymology is so problematic. Likewise, that Wikipedia article is full of speculation about the origins, because no one knows. I have heard stories from different mestres from Bahia, and they contradict.
    I know what Antonio means about the monkey-style movement, but I think that’s more characteristic of Capoeira Angola. The regional style is more upright and direct and draws on karate and other arts.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    ‘head’ was never “testis” (meaning ‘witness’), it was (in later, slangy Latin) “testa” which originally meant “clay pot”. There is discussion about whether those words could be related, which to me seems doubtful.
    Several years ago (before blogs) there was a long discussion on Linguist List about euphemisms for ‘testicles’ – there is quite a bit of agreement across cultures. If I remember rightly the most common one is ‘eggs’, at it is in varieties of Spanish. There were a few others which I can’t recall, but I don’t think that ‘head’ was one of those.

  23. ML, I never suggested that there was a transition from ‘head’ to ‘bollock’–but rather from ‘pot’ to ‘bollock’. A round hollow clay pot is a bit like an egg, and a bit like a bollock, and a bit like a head. There may well have been cross-influence from both ‘testa’ and ‘testis’, particularly with such a vulgar word.
    Frankly, I find the idea of ‘swearing on one’s testicles’ to be very redolent of folk-etymology. The AHD solution is much better.
    I missed your Benveniste paragraph, incidentally. I’m glad to see his name around, as he is one of my favourites, and it is sad that he is so much forgotten now. Calvert Watkins, who wrote the AHD entries, is a worthy successor.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    several comments about Conrad’s post:
    - if there had been a meaning shift of “testa” from ‘pot’ (previously ‘shell’) to ‘bollock’ (your word), it is most unlikely that the word would have ended up meaning ‘head’ as well; I have never heard of this particular meaning shift in other languages (which would be what one would expect if that was a common cultural metaphor, as with “eggs” in Spanish and many other languages); and if there had been a meaning contamination, it probably would have gone the other way (in general, once a taboo word, always a taboo word, see below);
    - “testis” in Latin originally meant ‘witness’: according to Philip Baldi, author of the very scholarly book The Foundations of Latin, “testis” ‘witness’ is from “ter-stis” (“ter” meaning ’3′, so this word means ‘third’ or ‘the third one’) – the legal witness to an agreement sworn between two men is a third man; this possible remote origin does not conflict with a *later* contamination from the Greek word for ‘witness’ (as in your quote from the AHD), once the Romans were into Greek culture;
    - if this word – having somehow acquired a secondary meaning ‘testicle’ – had been considered vulgar in Latin, it would probably still be so in at least some of the descendants of Latin: the Wikipedia entry “Latin profanity” will tell you all you might possibly want to know (I think) about words the Romans considered vulgar, as well as the more dignified ones: the latter survive in the words adopted by the English-speaking medical profession, while many of the truly vulgar Latin words have survived, slightly changed according to the rules of the individual languages but still considered obscene slang words, in the Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, French, etc); but the word “testimonium” (hence ‘testimony’) and the ancestor of ‘testify’ are not at all contaminated by any taboo; again, if they had been, they might have taken on the tabooed meaning or disappeared from the languages;
    - about a ritual of men swearing by their manly parts, this is not just an invention (folk etymology) in order to explain a sound resemblance between two words, but the custom is attested in several cultures of the ancient world, including the Bible – euphemisms were used to avoid mentioning the actual parts but scholars seem pretty well agreed on what was meant – this is also discussed in the Wikipedia reference above, but I had read about it previously, in works also by well-known scholars.
    - I am not familiar with Walde’s name or work.

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