On average, a person speaks somewhere between 7,000 and 20,000 words every day. Most of these are just fillers like “and,” “so,” and “on.” But the words that are used to convey a message often carry stories of their own.
We can track words back in time, reaching hundreds or thousands of years into history. However, communicating with the people of those times (ignoring the fact that they are dead) might prove difficult, as words evolve over time to have new meanings.
Have you ever played a game of dice? Maybe bet a couple of dollars on a game of bunco or a family game of Yahtzee? Most of us know that little rush of adrenaline when you let go of the small cubes, hoping that they will roll in your favor. Usually, playing with dice isn’t dangerous—unless you’ve bet your entire fortune or have a sore loser in the family.
Nonetheless, “a game of dice” has long been one of the principal meanings of the word “hazard.” It was derived from the Old French word hasard, a word for all sorts of dice games. Hasard came from the Spanish azar (“an unfortunate throw of dice”).
Lexicographers are those who compile dictionaries, and they are responsible for cutting off the bloodlines of “hazard” with the Spanish. A theory that azar originated from the Arabic word az-zahr (“the die”) has been on the table. But since zahr doesn’t appear in any classic Arabic dictionaries, the rest of the history of “hazard” is unknown.
When the English came along, the word “hazard” suddenly meant that you were in immediate danger—and not being invited to a friendly game of dice.
Today, there are few of us who blame the stars when something goes wrong. Instead of cursing at the sky, we drunkenly rant about our bosses or yell “Bad dog! Bad dog!” until we get the strength to clean up that pile of poop.
The old Italians probably also complained about the crap that they received from dogs and bosses, but they had one major excuse when things were going south: If you were born under certain stars, you were prone to bad luck and misfortune. From that belief came the word disastrato (“born under an ill star“).
So the next time it feels like everything is going wrong, you can do one of two things: Either blame the stars, or cheer yourself up by imagining an old Italian man screaming “Bad star! Bad star!” at the sky.
Do you ever overheat your computer or phone and feel really bad about it? So bad that you plug the charger in, give the device a few gentle strokes, and put it away in a quiet corner? We are working our machines as slaves—and really, why shouldn’t we? They don’t feel fatigue or hunger, and they can’t complain about lousy work conditions.
Maybe that’s what went through Karel Capek’s head in 1920 when he gave the name “robots” to the emotionless, mass-produced workers in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots. The Czech word robotnik means “slave,” as does the Old Slavicrobu and rabota.
Next time your computer dies, be sure to remind it that it serves you and not the other way around. Let’s just remember that when the robot uprising comes, we can all blame Karel Capek for their slavery.