Readability tips, literacy news, and English writing advice

Tiny Stories of the English Language

Many of the words used in today's English language can be traced back to French, Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, and many other languages. Each word has its own genetic makeup that is specifically unique to that one word.These tiny stories are known as Etymology, the study of the origins of words. Below are four words that have interesting stories.


The word Jumbo means extremely large. The word began its call to fame with Jumbo the elephant. In 1882, Jumbo was the world's most famous elephant. Full grown, Jumbo stood twelve and a half feet tall and weighed seven tons. He was the biggest elephant the world had ever seen. On any given day he could eat a barrel of potatoes, 200 pounds of hay, half a barrel of oats, 15 bread loaves, and the occasional whiskey drink. Jumbo became much more a name, it became a word used to describe anything abnormally large like Jumbo the elephant.


The word marathon makes its first appearance on the beach of Marathon. In 490 BC, a Persian army decided to be the first to conquer Athens. So they planned to land on the beach of Marathon, kill the entire Athens army, then swing around to the south side and loot the city. It should have been an easy victory, 25,000 Persians against 10,000 Athens. The Athens, realizing that they were completely outnumbered, begged for help from Sparta. Athens sent a military messenger, Pheidippides, to seek help. He ran 140 miles to Sparta, but Sparta refused to send help because they were in the middle of a religious holiday. So Pheidippides ran back.

When Pheidippides returned, Athens decided to just charge into battle. The Persians were completely caught by surprise and suffered massive losses that ended in a retreat.However, they were determined to sack Athens before they fled. On ships, the Persians would have taken 8 hours to reach Athens. Pheidippides sprinted the 26.2 miles all the way to Athens to warn of the oncoming army. On completing his mission, Pheidippides promptly died.

The Athens army had jogged behind Pheidippides to defend their city, battle-weary and exhausted. The Persians arrived and saw the tired troops of Athens waiting for them. They came to the conclusion that these Greeks were either demigods or supernatural beings, and decided they did not want to risk angering the gods. Hence the story behind the word marathon.


In Greek times, clue was actually spelled as clew and had a completely different meaning. Clew came from the Greek language meaning a ball of yarn. The meaning changed as it was adopted by the English language based on the Greek story of an evil king named Minos and his son, the Minotaur. Minos had built a labyrinth, and every seven years he required a sacrifice of 14 young men and women to be thrown into the labyrinth. No one ever returned from the labyrinth. Then one year a demigod named Theseus decided enough was enough, he was going to kill the Minotaur. Along the way. Minos' daughter fell heels over head in love with him and gave him a clew so that he could find his way out of the labyrinth. Theseus slew the Minotaur and used the clew to escape the depths of the labyrinth. The clew became known as the ball of yarn that points the way, a rough definition of the word clue.


The smallest building block of any organism is a cell. A scientist by the name of Robert Hooke was very curious about microscopes and designed better microscopes that allowed the viewer to view objects with a magnitude of 50x. He became the first person, in 1665, to actually see a cell. He thought they looked much like cells in prison and named them such. The name has stuck ever since.