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Interesting Etymologies 51 : Alphabet

"Hello again Word Lovers!"

In this episode we are not going to look at the origin of words, but the origin of the letters that make those words. While we understand these to be symbols representing sounds that form the building blocks of words, they all in fact, originally had a meaning!

So we are going to look at the origins of the 22 letters that form the original Semitic alphabet. We know it as the Latin alphabet but that comes to us via Greek.


Alef (Hebrew) An Ox or leader Alp (Canaanite) also meant Ox


Beth (Hebrew) - House - For example Bet Lehem (Bethlehem - House of Bread) Arabic - Bayt Lahm (House of Meat)


Gimel/Gamal (Hebrew) The desert animal - Camel


Daleth - Door but possibly a fish originally.


He - May have meant window but represented as a man with arms outstretched


Waw - Known as the hook, possibly a weapon. This letter has an interesting development, the Greeks made it into F, The Etruscans as V. The Greeks also created a second version, Y. The Roman version of this became V and then U before in 7th Century England the double u - W was created.


Zayin - Possibly meaning sword


Cheth - Fence, on the border between a consonant and a vowel. It becomes a vowel in Greek (E) and H for the Romans


Teth - Spindle, used by the Greeks as Theta but not used by the Romans


Yodh - originally the arm, but later the hand. Romans and Greeks used it for I (Iota) and later the variation came in for J. The expression not a jot can also be said as not one iota, referencing this confusing lineage.


Kaph - the palm of the hand


Lamedh - An ox stick or goad, original symbols seemed to represent a shepherds crook


Mem - the water


Nun - the fish, originally a snake or eel


Samech - also meaning fish, of uncertain origin.


'Ayin - the eye. The Greeks made two letters a little O Omicron and Big O Omega


Pey - A mouth, maybe originally meaning corner.


Tsade - uncertain origin - possibly the Sh sound. This was dropped by the Romans so perhaps the sound was not one they used.


Quph - A monkey


Resh - A head


Shin - Originally a bow, meant a tooth


Taw - The mark. Originally looked more like an X, but was turned on it's side.

Because of the nature of how these cultures wrote, some of the letters are turned on their head or reversed to become the symbols we know today. Check out the video to see the representations of these symbols

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

SkipDeLirio's Worst Ever Gig : A novel by Charly Taylor

Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.

So Caesar sends out soldiers to find himself a Scipio. Luckily, there is a man of such name right there in Rome – a local drunkard and tavern entertainer distantly descended from the legendary warrior. Kidnapped solely on account of his ‘heritage’, the lowly clown is forced to lead out the troops in the battle of Thapsus. There, ‘history’ tells us, Scipio ‘disappears from the historical record’.

Until now.

This is the story of how ‘Nobody’ Skip DeLirio, with the cards finally all dealt in his favour, still managed to fuck it up. History will only take you so far. The rest is make-believe.

Order your copy here


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