Reading Comprehension Text and Exercises

Interesting Word Origins in the English language

Not even native speakers of English are aware of where each word in their language comes from and how it came to be used in the first place.

Etymology is the study of word origins which offers some incredible facts about the hugely diverse words found in the English language.

By learning more about word origins, we are also being introduced to the history of the United Kingdom, and all other cultures who had influence on this country.

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All English Tenses

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All Tenses

A Brief History of English

  • English was brought to Britain between the 5th and the 7th century by Germanic invaders and settlers. This new West-Germanic language displaced different Celtic languages that predominated among the British people.
  • Of course, the Old English spoken then is not the English we speak now. It developed into Middle English, which was greatly influenced by the Scandinavians who colonized parts of Britain. This led to many grammatical simplifications currently existing in English.
  • From the 1500s onwards, Early Modern English became dominant. This version of English was used by Shakespeare, and it incorporated many borrowings from Latin, Ancient Greek and French. During this period, the Great Vowel Shift occurred, which changed the pronunciation of long vowels and affected all dialects of English.
  • Modern English proper, nearly the same as what is spoken today, was in place in the late 17th century, and it spread out all over the world through British colonization.

Some Interesting Word Origins


Sandwiches are such popular snacks that the English word "sandwich" is used all over the world. Not many people know that this snack got its name more than 250 years ago from John Montagu, who was the 4th Earl of Sandwich.

Back in the 18h century, this aristocrat asked his valet (personal servant) to bring him beef served between two slices of bread. This particular method of serving beef became the Earl's favorite meal to eat while playing cards, because his hands would not get greasy from the meat.

Soon after, the Earl's friends began to order "the same as Sandwich" when they came to visit, and the method of putting anything – bread, cheese or vegetables – between two slices of bread became known as a "sandwich".



As the English language changed over the years, many foreign words and expressions were adopted. One such word is "clue", which in fact derives from a Greek word "clew", which means "a ball of yarn" (thread used for knitting, making cloth, etc.).

What is more interesting is that the particular Greek word was actually motivated by Greek mythology. Namely, according to the story of Minotaur (part man, part bull), Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of yarn to help him find his way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth. Because of this, people started using the word "clew" to describe something that points the way, like when a detective works on solving a crime.



Ancient Rome also had some impact on how the English language developed. The word "palace" has its origins from the Rome's famous Palatine, or the Seven Hills, where the Emperor stayed.

His residence eventually grew to be a sprawling (existing over a large area) and rich home, so the word "palatine" became associated with the residence of emperors, and not the hill.

This word reached Britain through Old French, in which the word "palais" actually referred to the Palatine Hill. Over the years, this word was modified to "palace", but its original form is still visible in the word "palatial", meaning something that is palace-like in terms of its size.



The word "awkward", which is one of the most commonly used adjectives today to describe something strange, came to Britain from the Vikings, people from Scandinavian countries in the North.

The etymology of the word suggests that the word can be split into two parts: awk- and –ward. Awk, or afugr, means "turned the wrong way" in Old Norse. The –ward suffix comes from the Old English –weard, which means "turned toward", and this word actually has Germanic origin.

Put together, the word "awkward" literally means "turned towards being turned away from". Isn't that awkward?


See Interesting Word Origins in the English Language, Part 2

Comprehension Exercises

Vocabulary Questions

  1. What does "sprawling" mean?
    1. used by many people
    2. existing over a large area
    3. decorated with expensive materials

  2. What does "aristocrat" mean?
    1. someone who is a great lover of meat
    2. someone who often plays cards
    3. someone who comes from the richest class

  3. What does "dialect" mean?
    1. form of a language specific for a region
    2. language spoken by many people in the world
    3. languages coming from the same language family

  4. What does "valet" mean?
    1. personal doctor
    2. object used for keeping money
    3. male attendant who usually cleans clothes

  5. What does "suffix" mean?
    1. a letter or letters added to the end of a word
    2. a letter or letters added to the beginning of a word
    3. a word composed of two words

Collocation Questions

  1. "Palatial" means something palace-like in ___________ its size.
    1. terms of
    2. the manner of
    3. relation to

  2. The ball of yarn helped Theseus find his ___________ out of the labyrinth.
    1. path
    2. way
    3. route

  3. The word "clue" ___________ from Greek mythology.
    1. rises
    2. extracts
    3. derives

  4. The etymology of the word "awkward" can be ___________ into two.
    1. breached
    2. broken
    3. split

  1. "Awkward" ___________ means "turned towards being turned away from".
    1. literally
    2. basically
    3. evidently

  1. The word "palatine" became associated ___________ the emperor's residence.
    1. to
    2. with
    3. of

  1. Modern English proper was ___________ place in the 17th century.
    1. out of
    2. on
    3. in

  2. Early Modern English incorporated many ___________ from Latin and Ancient Greek.
    1. borrowings
    2. gifts
    3. inspirations

  3. Scandinavians influenced many grammatical ___________ in English.
    1. adjustments
    2. cuts
    3. simplifications

  4. The Earl did not want his hands to get ___________ from the sandwich.
    1. greasy
    2. fatty
    3. oily

Wh Questions

  1. How did Theseus get out of the Minotaur's labyrinth?
    1. He killed the Minotaur.
    2. He hired a detective.
    3. He used the ball of yarn.

  2. Which English word still shows the influence of the Latin word "palatine"?
    1. palatial
    2. palms
    3. pale

  3. Why did the Earl of Sandwich ask for a sandwich in the first place?
    1. He liked bread more than meat.
    2. He did not want to get his hands greasy.
    3. He liked to serve it to other cards players.

  4. Who brought English to Britain?
    1. the Romans
    2. Celtic settlers
    3. Germanic invaders

  1. What version of English did Shakespeare use?
    1. Old English
    2. Middle English
    3. Early Modern English

Evaluating Statements

  1. Based on the information in this lesson, which statement is true?
    1. Before the Germanic tribes came to Britain, Celtic languages were most commonly spoken.
    2. Before the Celtic tribes came to Britain, Germanic languages were most commonly spoken.

  2. Based on the information in this lesson, which statement is false?
    1. The word "palace" came to English from the Old Spanish "palacio".
    2. he word "palace" came to English from the Old French "palais".

True or False?

  1. Based on the information in this lesson, is the following statement true or false?

    "The suffix –ward in the word "awkward" comes from the Vikings."
    1. True
    2. False

  2. Based on the information in this lesson, is the following statement true or false?

    "The Great Vowel Shift had an impact on all English dialects."
    1. True
    2. False

Answer Key

1. B | 2. C | 3. A | 4. C | 5. A | 6. A | 7. B | 8. C | 9. C | 10. A | 11. B | 12. C | 13. A | 14. C| 15. A | 16. C | 17. A | 18. B | 19. C | 20. C |21. A | 22. A | 23. B | 24. A

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