Some words like “china” and “hamburger” point clearly to their roots, but toponymy, or the study of place names, throws up several surprises.
Two-piece bathing suits have been around at least since 1600 B.C., but the modern version was christened by Louis Reard, a French mechanical engineer. Reard named his explosive 1946 creation after the United States’ nuclear tests that had launched four days earlier on Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands. Reard’s claim that his Bikini was “smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world” was aimed at “Atome”, a swimsuit named after the atom bomb, and introduced three weeks earlier by French fashion designer Jacques Heim. The Bikini easily fit into a matchbox, and was so scandalous that only a nude dancer agreed to pose in it for the press.
The often large, expansive bungalows of today hark back to an architectural style named “bangla,” the Hindi word for “of Bengal”. A bangla was a single-story, thatched or tiled house with a verandah.
This word sprung from the battle of Marathon, a town in Greece, in 490 B.C., when a small Athenian army routed an invading Persian force. As legend has it, the soldier Pheidippides ran 42km (today’s marathon distance) back to Athens, and proclaimed victory before falling down dead. When the marathon was introduced as a sporting event at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, it was quite fittingly won by a Greek, Spyros Louis.
American businessman Levi Strauss may be synonymous with jeans, but the word has European roots. “Jeans” borrows from the city of Genoa, whose sailors wore indigo-dyed pants in the 1500s. The exported fabric was eventually called “bleu de Gênes”, or “the blue of Genoa” by the French. Jeans are made of dungaree and denim; “dungaree” is derived from Dongri in Mumbai, which supplied coarse cotton overalls for workers in the 17th and 18th centuries. While Strauss’ jeans were made of U.S. denim, the twilled cotton fabric was first made in the French town of Nĭmes; it came to be called “denim” as shorthand for “de Nĭmes” or “of Nĭmes”.
The world’s tiniest self-governing state was named after the local exclamation for “Behold the coconut!” Incidentally, Captain Cook termed it “Savage Island” for the gory image of the islanders with their teeth smeared with the juice of red bananas.
The expression “O.K.” most likely originated from the abbreviation for the humorous misspelling “orl korrekt” (all correct). But the term caught on during the 1840 U.S. Presidential elections, when it was bandied about in the sloganeering for Democratic Party candidate, Martin Van Buren of Kinderhook, New York. Buren was nicknamed Old Kinderhook, and his supporters formed the “O.K. Club”. He didn’t win a second term, but the expression stayed.
is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.
is an illustrator, animator, and the creator of the comic series “Angry Maushi”. He is a regular illustrator with Tinkle, and loves collecting comics and action figures.
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