Where Did that Word Come From?

Advertising poster for Jumbo.

One reason the English language is such a versatile writing tool is its range of word choices — look long enough and you’ll find one that says exactly what you mean. Most come from French, German, Greek, Latin or some other language the English-speaking people have come in contact with. Then there are the 1700 or so words Shakespeare is said to have just made1 up when he couldn’t find one he liked (that’s one of the privileges of being the most famous writer who ever lived). But some words have interesting, unlikely and often forgotten origins. Here are a few of them.

Jumbo. No one would be surprised to learn that there was an elephant named Jumbo — after all, the animals are huge. The interesting fact is that the English word jumbo comes the elephant’s name.

Jumbo was the star of the P.T. Barnum circus — he rode in a custom-built railway car with his name on it, just like an industrial tycoon. As his fame spread, businesses began referring to their largest products as Jumbo sized and eventually the word entered our vocabulary. Jumbo is the mascot of Tufts University and his preserved body stood in Barnum Hall until the building was destroyed by fire in 1975.3

Title screen for Private Snafu training film.
Cartoon Opening.4

Snafu. It happens to everyone — despite our best efforts, we encounter a snafu.

The term started as a World War II acronym, Situation Normal, All F*#ked Up. There were even training movies featuring a screwball Private Snafu who did everything good soldiers shouldn’t.5 Apparently situations that were really hopeless were said to be fubar, short for F*#ked Up Beyond All Recognition.6

Caricature of Charles Boycott from Vanity Fair.

Boycott. Today we call the American colonists’ refusal to buy British tea a boycott. They didn’t, however, because Captain Boycott hadn’t yet been born. That’s right, the word “boycott” comes from a man’s name.

Charles Boycott was a British landlord’s agent in Ireland. His problems started in 1880 when he began evicting “troublesome” tenants.

A political reform group, the Irish Land league, got involved and called on local people to stop doing business with Boycott. The action was so effective that no one would sell Boycott a loaf of bread or harvest his crops.

A journalist reporting these events was looking for a simple word to describe them. A local priest suggested “boycotting” since most people already knew what was going on due to complaining letters Boycott had sent to the London papers. The word stuck — by December 1880 the Illustrated London News noted that “to boycott” had already become a verb. Thus an otherwise unnoteworthy person gained linguistic immortality as his name entered not only the English language, but many others, including French, German, Russian and Dutch.8

Laser. Not so many years ago, lasers were the stuff of science fiction. Today we find them in everyday devices. The word is another acronym, short for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, and was coined by Columbia University graduate student Gordon Gould in a 1959 conference paper.9

Elegant party in the movie the Great Gatsby.
Posh Party in The Great Gatsby.10

Posh. Something that is really deluxe is often said to be “posh,” for example a beautifully appointed penthouse overlooking the harbor. Supposedly the word comes from Port Out, Starboard Home, designating the more desirable cabins on steamships sailing from Britain to India.

The story is that in the early twentieth century steamship companies stamped POSH on the tickets of passengers who were to get those desired berths. Unfortunately no one can find any evidence of this, even though etymologists (people who study word origins) interviewed steamship line employees. So for now the origin of this word continues to be one of the great mysteries of our language.11

Scuba. Divers need scuba gear if they want to go deep and remain underwater. The word scuba is short for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus and was first used by World War II diving pioneer Christian Lambertsen in a paper delivered to the National Academy of Sciences.12

Painting of patients at Bethlem hospital.
Patients at Bethlem.13

Bedlam. When things get really chaotic we sometimes say it is total “bedlam,” meaning like a madhouse. It makes perfect sense if you look back a few hundred years because Bedlam was the name of a London asylum.

The word “bedlam” comes from Bethlem, which itself derives from the institution’s original name as a hospital for the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem. It is Europe’s oldest psychiatric facility and in its early days was notorious for many of the excesses practiced in the care of lunatics. The wards had a reputation for being chaotic, hence use of the hospital’s name to refer generally to boisterous places.14

* * * * *

Word origins and original meanings get lost in the mists of time. For example, we frequently hear the terms red, blue and purple state used to refer to a location’s political tendencies. But the association of those colors with Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals is not long-standing. Should the usage continue, how many of our descendants will remember that they began with network television coverage of the 2000 presidential election.


  1. See Marylou Tousignant, How did Shakespeare shape the English language? Washington Post (April 17, 2016).
  2. Advertisement for Jumbo, image from Wikipedia.
  3. See Deborah Walk, Jennifer Lemmer, and Marcy Murray, Colorful Circus Paper Traces the Spread of “Jumbomania,” Ephemera Society of America web site (February 11, 2013).
  4. Image from Wikipedia.
  5. The U.S. National Archives has placed digital versions of some of the cartoons on YouTube. Here is a link to a 1944 film called Censored.
  6. See Wikipedia article on SNAFU. For a detailed discussion of the origin of SNAFU, including several alternate sources, see Researching the real origin of SNAFU on the English Language & Usage forum on StackExchange.
  7. Caricature of Boycott from Vanity Fair (January 29, 1881). Image from Wikipedia.
  8. See What is the origin of “boycott”? on the Oxford Dictionaries blog.
  9. See Wikipedia entry for Laser.
  10. Image from Chris Taylor, How Much Would It Cost to Be the Great Gatsby? Mashable (May 9, 2013).
  11. See Posh on the World Wide Words web site.
  12. See Christian Lambertsen and the Secret Story Behind Scuba (June 8, 2017) on the CIA web site.
  13. The last of eight paintings in William Hogarth’s series “A Rake’s Progress.” This one shows Tom Rakewell confined at Bethlem Hospital. Painting is in the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. Image from Wikipedia.
  14. Steven Casale, Bedlam: The Horrors of London’s Most Notorious Insane Asylum, Huffington Post (March 18, 2016).

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Updated June 5, 2018.