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. 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.

  21. David L. Gold says

    The alleged connection between French bistro ~ bistrot and Russian быстро (bystro) has been dismissed several times, with copious evidence:

    Walther von Wartburg. Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch.

    Le Trésor de la langue française: Dictionnaire de la langue du XIXe et du XXe siècle (1789–1960)).

    L. G. Heien. “Bystro Li ‘bistro’?” In Roger L. Hadlich and J. D. Ellsworth, eds. Homage to Edgar C. Knowlton, Jr., Honolulu. Department of European Languages and Literature. University of Hawaii, 1988, pp. 105-116.

    David L. Gold, The Alleged Russian Origin of French bistro ~ bistrot ‘wine merchant; public house’ versus its probable ultimate origin in Vulgar Latin or Gallo-Romance (On the Persistence of a Folk Etymology and Folk Etiology Despite the Suggestion of Better Etymologies).” In his Studies in Etymology and Etiology (With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance, and Slavic Languages). Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante, 2009, pp. 19-47.

    The gist of the evidence is that the French word is not isolated in French. Rather, it belongs to a family of phonological and semantically similar words found in rural European French, for example:

    bistrou ‘gardeur de vaches’
    bistrau ‘petit berger’
    bistraud ‘petit domestique; berger’

    Consequently,) it has to be seen not as an isolated word in the French of Paris (where Russian influence was marginally possible) but as a member of an old family of words originating in rural France (where Russian influence was impossible).

    The earliest known meaning of bistro ~ bistrot, which I should have mentioned in the title of my article is ‘wine merchant’s helper’.

    Consequently, it presumably arose as a jocularism: just as a shepherd takes care of a flock, the wine merchant’s helper took care of the merchant’s bottles of wine.

    Then, ‘wine merchant’s helper’ –> ‘wine merchant’ –> ‘wine shop’ –> ‘wine shop where food is sold’ –> ‘small restaurant where wine is sold’.

    Yes, “the sticking point is that the French word is first attested 70 years or so later” (mentioned by LH in an earlier comment) is another argument.

  22. Trond Engen says

    Interesting. Since le Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé is another theme of this thread, I’ll quote:

    ÉTYMOL. ET HIST. 1884 arg. pop. bistro « cabaretier » (G. MOREAU, Souvenirs de la Petite et de la Grande Roquette, t. 2, p. 3); 1892 bistrot (TIMM.); d’où le fém. bistrote [1914 d’apr. ESN. sans attest.]; 1919, supra ex. 4.
    Orig. obsc.; à rattacher au poit. bistraud « petit domestique » d’orig. inc. (cf. FEW t. 22, 2, p. 61a; v. aussi ESN., s.v. bistaud) si l’on suppose que le mot a tout d’abord désigné l’aide du marchand de vin, plutôt qu’à relier à bistingo « cabaret » 1845 (RAISSON, Une Sombre histoire/i>, I, 40 dans Fr. mod., t. 19, 1951, p. 203), bustingue (avec coquille?) « hôtel où couchent les bohémiens » 1848 (A. PIERRE, Arg. et jargon, ibid.) et bistringue, bastringue*, tous d’orig. obsc.; l’hyp. qui voit dans le mot, l’adaptation du russe bistro « vite » remontant aux cosaques assoiffés occupant Paris en 1814 n’est pas suffisamment fondée. Le -t final qui permet le fém. bistrote (cf. supra prononc. et orth.) est dû aux nombreux mots fr. en -ot à valeur affective (cf. NYROP t. 3, § 287-291).

    Since you implicitly reject the connection with the forms with -ing-, what’s your take on those? -ing- makes me want to look for a Germanic source, most likely with a meaning “guesthouse” or thereabouts.

  23. (The original Etymologic! link is dead, so I substituted an archived version — you can see what it looked like, but of course you can no longer play the game.)

  24. PlasticPaddy says

    seeing bistingo, bustingo I thought of Romani rather than Germanic.
    from Sinti:
    bušt n m skewer, spit (cooking)
    -ingo could be a suffix, i.e., salingo for bacon looks like “salted (meat)”
    This could describe the cooking at a guesthouse or perhaps the dancing practice at these establishments was of an excessively close kind????

  25. “Since you implicitly reject the connection with the forms with -ing-, what’s your take on those? -ing- makes me want to look for a Germanic source, most likely with a meaning “guesthouse” or thereabouts.”

    I don’t reject the words ending in -ing (note the phrase “for example” preceding the three I give) or any others.

    Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch devotes two pages to the family of words of which bistro ~ bistrot is one (vol. XXII 2. Teil, 259-260) and concludes that their stem is of unknown origin.

    The members of the family all refer to persons and none to places.

    All serious students of French etymology have dismissed the Russian story, which survives only in lay circles, where it becomes ever more embellished as it is passed on.

    Here, for instance, we are told why, on the basis of no evidence, Parisian cafes have zinc counter tops:

    “Russian soldiers also contributed something to the design of these establishments. Those sleek, shining zinc counters for which the bistro is known were first implemented during the occupation. The Russian troops were wont to bang their fists as they barked commands. Wine spilled as a result. Dreading the prospect of  ruin, café owners began lining their counters with zinc, which stood up against messes and blows much better than did wood. And so it is that a place thought so quintessentially French is in fact the child of Russian ill-manners” (Baumgarthuber 2012).

    Baumgarthuber, Christine. 2012. “Boor and Peace: The Russian Occupation of Paris and the Birth of the Bistro.” The New Inquiry. 17 February [].

    By the nineteenth century, all officers in the Russian imperial army were required to know French because it was the language they would have to use in dealing with their counterparts in opposing armies (say, to negotiate a truce). French also served them as a secret language they could use in the presence of their rank-and-file soldiers.

    Russian officers, therefore, could speak French to the French.

    The rank-and-file soldiers usually drank kvas, which they made themselves by soaking sour bread in water to make it ferment, and maybe some of them drank vodka, which was presumably unavailable in Paris, in which case they had to rely on what they may have brought from home.

    It is therefore hard to see what Russian soldiers in Paris were demanding that their wine be brought “быстро!”

    And they were banging so mightily on the counters that they had to be lined with zinc?

    Has Christine Baumgarthuber, who usually writes well about cooking, not let her imagination run wild?

    Seria non leguntur. Frivola etiam nunc alacriter devorantur.

  26. There’s a distinct flavor to bad folk etymologies. The Russian “bistro” etymology is a good example; you pick a lookalike word, perhaps a familiar one, from a foreign language, and weave an imaginary story around it. Why would Russians (even if they didn’t speak French) yell at French waiters in Russian? Why would such a contrived speech act give its name to the establishment? Odd etymologies do happen, often beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, but the credible ones are well-documented.

  27. Trond Engen says

    @David Gold: I don’t defend the Russian etymology. I’m inquiring your expert opinion on bist(r)ingo vel.sim. “simple establishment for lodging(?)”, as a starting point for an etymology for that.

    @PlasticPaddy: I should have thought of Romani. But how common are Romani borrowings in French?

  28. @ Trond Engen. I have no expertise in the matter about which you ask and therefore have no opinion. I know nothing about the French suffix -ingo.

    If the software of the Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé or the Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch makes a reverse search possible, you could retrieve all the words ending in -ingo and see whether any of them refers to a place or a shelter of some kind.

    Regarding Romani influence on French, the 25 volumes (over 17,000 pages) of the FEW are arranged according to source languages:

    Volumes 1–14: Latin, Greek, and some pre-Roman onomatopoeic etymology.
    Volumes 15–17: Germanic etymology.
    Volume 18: anglicisms.
    Volume 19: Orientalia
    Volume 20: loanwords from other languages (Breton, Basque, Hebrew, and so on).
    Volumes 21–23: Material of unknown or uncertain origin, loanwords from other Romance languages, as well as corrections and new research.
    Volumes 24 and 25: New revisions of the letter “A”.

    It should therefore be easy to locate the words of Romani origin if they have been correctly identified as such.

    @ Y. I agree.

  29. Wiktionary has lists (French, English) of French words of Romani origin; no -ingo words there.

  30. PlasticPaddy says

    cingo n m zinc
    cvilingo n m twin
    heringo n m herring
    salingo n m bacon
    the first 3 appear to be german borrowings

    glinga n f bell
    hendčinga n f glove
    lotringa n f Lorraine

    these seem to be all german borrowings (the first from Klinke).
    hendčinga is the only one for which you could say there is evidence for the “inga” as a suffix.
    data for Sinte Romani from:

  31. salingo n m bacon
    That’s probably from East / South Slavic salo “bacon”, so would be another case of an -ingV suffix in Romani.

  32. Well, salo is not exactly bacon (it doesn’t need to have meat), but close enough.

  33. Yes, it’s main meaning is “lard, fat” also in South Slavic, according to the dictionaries I consulted, but “bacon” is one of the meanings given at least for Croatian and Serbian. In Bulgarian it seems to mean “fat, tallow”, so FYLOSC is probably the source for the Sinte Romani word.

  34. PlasticPaddy says

    @hans, hat
    Thanks. I think now glinga is more likely to have come from die Klingel with the meaning “bell” or “chime” than die Klinke, which looks rather similar but has a meaning of handle (for some reason I thought it could also mean knocker). Of course previously the servants’ entrance, as well as the main entrance, would have a bellpull but I do not know if that was called Klinke, Klingel or something else.

  35. Klingelzug or simply Klingel

  36. Andrej Bjelaković says

    Yeah, slanina is bacon and salo usually means subcutaneous fat. Lard is (svinjska) mast and tallow is loj. Fat in chemistry is also mast.
    I don’t think I’ve ever seen salo used to mean bacon.

  37. Trond Engen says

    It seems that the final o could possibly be of Romani origin but Romani would need Germanic for the -ing-.

  38. marie-lucie says

    le bistro(t)

    In amglophone circles this word seems to be associated with food, but to me (and I suppose most European French speakers) it is more associated with alcohol consumption, any food being secondary. The typical bistro customer (as I remember him, since some customs have changed), a working-class man, used to stop at the corner bistro to have a quick glass of wine on his way to or from work, often meeting buddies there (few women used to patronize bistros, but typically many wives would go there on pay day to make sure their husbands came home in good time). Many bistros also sell cigarettes, lottery tickets and postage stamps (all of them under government contract) and newspapers. As alcohol consumption has been declining in the last decades, especially among young people, many bistros have had to diversify by providing coffee, juice, sandwiches as well as sometimes more substantial meals, which of course require larger facilities than the old-fashioned bistro.

    le zinc (pronounced with the nasal vowel “in” and a final /g/- not like English “zing”)

    Zinc is a metal that lends itself to be formed into flat sheets. In France it is especially used in roofing (most of Paris is covered in zinc) and as covers for surfaces exposed to water or edible substances, such as counters in old kitchens and other places where food and drink are likely to be spilled. If you go to a bistro at the relevant time of day, most of the customers are likely to be standing at the counter, drinking sur le zinc where they rest their glass, as opposed to sitting on a chair at a table as is done at a café.

  39. @ marie-lucie. Thanks for the additional information.

  40. Zinc is a metal that lends itself to be formed into flat sheets.

    I believe this is galvanized steel:

    Galvanization or galvanizing (also spelled galvanisation or galvanising) is the process of applying a protective zinc coating to steel or iron, to prevent rusting.

    […] it is more associated with alcohol consumption, any food being secondary. The typical bistro customer (as I remember him, since some customs have changed), a working-class man, used to stop at the corner bistro to have a quick glass of wine on his way to or from work, often meeting buddies there […]

    An izakaya (居酒屋) (Japanese: [izakaja]) is a type of informal Japanese bar that serves alcoholic drinks and snacks. Izakayas are casual places for after-work drinking, similar to a British Pub or Irish pub, Spanish tapas bars, and American saloons and taverns.
    Dining style

    Izakayas are often likened to taverns or pubs, but there are a number of differences.

    Depending on the izakaya, customers either sit on tatami mats and dine from low tables, as in the traditional Japanese style, or sit on chairs and drink/dine from tables. Many izakaya offer a choice of both as well as seating by the bar. Some izakaya restaurants are also tachi-nomi style, literally translated as “drinking while standing”.

    Usually, customers are given an oshibori (wet towel) to clean their hands; the towels are cold in summer and hot in winter. Next, a tiny snack/an appetizer, called an otōshi in the Tokyo area or tsukidashi in the Osaka-Kobe area, will be served. It is local custom and usually charged onto the bill in lieu of an entry fee.

    The menu may be on the table, displayed on walls, or both. Picture menus are common in larger izakaya. Food and drink are ordered throughout the course of the session as desired. They are brought to the table, and the bill is added up at the end of the session. Unlike other Japanese styles of eating, food items are usually shared by everyone at the table, similar to Spanish tapas.

    Common formats for izakaya (as well as much other) dining in Japan are known as nomi-hōdai (“all you can drink”) and tabe-hōdai (“all you can eat”). For a set price per person, customers can continue ordering as much food and/or drink as they wish, usually with a time limit of two or three hours.

  41. @juha, then a natural analogy (in how one metal is called by the name of another) is жесть zhest’. Today it is understood as any kind of thin iron – definitely not golden! – or steel sheets.

    Instinctively it is strongly associated with zhelezo, “iron”. After all zhe- is uncommon, while -st’ is a common suffix.
    Yet it comes from a Turkic/Mongolic word for “copper”*.

    THe variety coated in tin is called tinplate in Enligsh and fer-blanc in French. But in Russian it refers to any sheet metal, including that used in otzinkovannyie “around-zink-ed” buckets.

    *Well, “copper” itself from the island of Cyprus where it was produced (or vice versa).

  42. David Marjanović says

    Just like tinfoil, which has been made of aluminum for long enough it’s only called Alufolie in German.

  43. Also pencil “lead”.

  44. David Marjanović says

    Ah yeah, the whole pencil is still called Bleistift “lead peg” in German.

  45. About bistro.

    Every Russian of my age or older knows the German word for fast(er). Moreover, I heard it used by Russians humorously, when hurrying up other Russians. You sometimes want it, to substitute a word with something rather than keep repeating the same word, particularly with “hurry up”.

    Of course we know it from war movies, but why the authors of novels and scripts chose this particular word to represent whole German language?

    In other words, the idea that French people could adopt the word for their own needs is highly plausible for anyone who knows “schneller” since the age of 2*

    Well, it could be 4, but definitely pre-school age.

  46. Ah yeah, the whole pencil is still called Bleistift “lead peg” in German.

    In Russia:
    карандаш karandáš.
    Compare also'Ache_(entreprise)

    Wiktionary suggests Turkic kara “black” daš “stone” with epenthetic -n- in Russian (but was the Swiss company’s name above motivated by exactly Russian langauge?). Another suggestion is qalam and daš.

    грифель grífel’ < Ger. Griffel

    The black (or coloured) stick inside your wooden pencil. Thought to be made of graphite in black pensils.

  47. Caran d’Ache

    Made me think about Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth. Wikipedia says about Koh-i-Noor: “patented the first pencil lead made from a combination of kaolin and graphite“, the modern way to do it. I wonder if it is also correct to say “invented’ or is it just “patented”?

    (The article Graphite_pencil is short and interesting : A large deposit of graphite was discovered in 1565 on the approach to Grey Knotts from the hamlet of Seathwaite in Borrowdale parish, Cumbria, England.This particular deposit of graphite was extremely pure and solid, and it could easily be sawn into sticks. It remains the only large-scale deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form. etc.)

  48. Caran d’Ache came up here once.

  49. Trond Engen says

    I’ve been thinking on the Germanic connection. I might contrive an Old Norse source along the lines of búsþröng f. “small and crammed place for living”, with -ngv- in the oblique forms, but it’s not actually attested and I doubt it would come out anywhere close in recent Norman French.

  50. Bleistift “lead peg”

    lyijy (“lead”) +‎ kynä (“pen”)
    pencil, lead pencil


    鉛筆 (lead + brush)

  51. Lars Mathiesen says

    Swedish has blyertspenna ~ ‘lead ore pen’. Galena (lead sulphide, a lead ore mineral) and graphite look similar. (Danish has blyant by confusion with something else which these parentheses are too small to contain).

  52. Lars Mathiesen says

    something — another something times out so I don’t get the edit links, it looks like an image after the Amazon associate link in the sidebar but why should that block the XHR to check for editable status I don’t know, unless the latter is triggered by a pageloaded event of course…

  53. marie-lucie says


    This is a true story, from one of the two world wars:

    A column of French prisoners are being marched by a German officer, who keeps barking Schneller!. Of course this German word has no effect on the prisoners. But one of them can speak German, and he says to the officer: “They don’t know what you are saying, you have to tell them in French!” The officer asks what the French word is: Mollo!. So the officer starts barking Mollo! Mollo! while the prisoners all slow down. (“Mollo” is a slang word for “slow”).

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