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10 Business Terms with Surprising Origins

The terms we use in business today didn’t always mean what they do today.

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

I love etymology (the history of words), don’t you? It peels back the layers of time and allows us to peek at the origins of terms we use every day without even blinking. Here is a list of business and work-related words whose meaning has changed significantly over the course of human history.

1. Desk

This term comes from the same Latin (and before that, Greek) root as the word disk. The modified word originally meant “platter or dish.” (So that’s why working at your desk always makes you so hungry.)

2. Calendar

Like many ancient words, this came to us from Latin and Rome. But did you know that the root word is even older? It actually used to be a Proto-Indo-European word that meant “to shout.” And that’s probably why my calendar always gives me a headache.

3. Staple

This humble office classic comes from a Proto-German word that means “pillar.” What’s even more interesting is that root word transformed in other ancient languages to mean: a candle, a tub, a tooth stem, a foot-rest, a beam, and an execution block. Yikes! Let’s put the staple gun down and talk this out, okay?

4. Boss

The origins of this term are a bit murky, but it’s possible it came from an old Dutch word that means “uncle.” Oh, how times have changed.

5. Manage

This familiar term comes from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “hand.” The French language shaped this word to refer specifically to handling horses before it settled into the word we know and love, today. Carrots, anyone?

6. Business

A term we all respect today had its roots in an Old English word which meant “anxiety.” As in, I’ve really gotta do something with my hands right now to stay busy. In fact, this word didn’t relate to work at all until the latter part of the fourteenth century. Now you know why work makes you so anxious. 😉

7. Salary

Now, this word surprised me. As a Spanish speaker, the root word was so obvious once I saw the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary (which is a fabulous resource, by the way). Yeah, but salt. Salary comes from a Proto-Indo-European word for salt. Tasty.

8. Negotiate

This term comes from a Proto-Indo-European word that means “lack of leisure.” Got to keep that hustle up, right?

9. Plan

Here is another word whose origin became more obvious when I saw it. This term comes from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “flat; to spread.” Like a mathematical plane. Duh.

10. File

Finally, this term paints a vivid image of what record-keeping must have been like in the ancient world. The word originally meant “a string or wire upon which documents are strung,” and that’s why we sometimes hear people say things are kept on file. The ancients must have hung up their paperwork like laundry on a clothesline. Oh, to be a fly on the wall.

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