The etymology of the words in the Office suite of programs. By English with Stephen

Word Stories: In the office

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Hello, my name is Stephen Greene and this is Learning English with Stephen. Today we are talking about the office. Or, more specifically, the software created by Microsoft in their Office suite of applications. We are going to look at the history of words like ‘word’, ‘excel’, ‘PowerPoint’ and ‘outlook’. You already probably know these words, but where do they come from and how can you use them in other contexts?

All of the answers to these questions coming up after this little musical interlude.

Before we start, I’d like to say that in today’s episode I have a special little bonus at the end, so make sure you listen all the way through.


All of the products we are going to talk about today have been produced by Microsoft. The word ‘Microsoft’ is a portmanteau. A portmanteau is a word made up of two other words. For example, the word ‘brunch’ means a meal between breakfast and lunch. The word is made by combining the ‘br’ from ‘breakfast’ and the ‘unch’ from ‘lunch’. Microsoft is a combination of ‘micro’ which means small and can be used with ‘microchips’ and ‘soft’ from ‘software.


Microsoft gathered together a number of their products and called them Microsoft Office. This includes Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, among others. The word ‘office’ entered English in the 13th century from French meaning ‘a position or place in government’. It comes originally from Latin where it meant literally ‘doing work’.


One of the most popular Office programs is Word. For almost a hundred years, if you wanted to use a machine to write something, you had to use a typewriter. Then, in the 1970s we started to get word processors. These were like primitive computers that you could use to replace typewriters. When personal computers became more popular, word processing was one of the first things people wanted to do, and so along came Word from Microsoft.

The history of ‘word’ is not that exciting. It comes from Old English and probably from Proto-German before that and means more or less the same as it does today.

There are other uses of ‘word’ that are more interesting. For example, if I ‘give you my word’ I am promising you something. I don’t give you any contract or collateral, just my word or my promise that I will do something.

We can also use ‘word’ in the phrase ‘have words with someone to mean have an argument or a serious conversation with someone.


The next program I want to look at is excel. It is a very common spreadsheet program but most people do not realise that the word ‘excel’ is actually the verb from the adjective ‘excellent’. If you ‘excel’ at something you are brilliant, outstanding, or fantastic at it.

The word comes originally from the Latin ‘excellere’. ‘Ex’ means ‘out from’, and ‘cellere’ means ‘rise high. So the basic meaning of ‘excel’ is to rise higher than everyone else.


Almost everybody has used or seen a PowerPoint presentation. I’ve seen some amazing presentations and some really, really bad ones. Before the word became synonymous with presentation slides, though, it was sometimes used to describe an electrical socket on the wall. This was the ‘point’ where you could access ‘power’ or electricity.

It is more common to use the word ‘plug’, especially in British English, but I like the idea of the software being the access point to a lot of powerful tools on your computer.


The final piece of software I want to look at is not really an Office product, but it is still from Microsoft. Outlook is Microsoft’s email platform, like Gmail for Google, but not as common. In the real world, ‘outlook’ has two different meanings. The first is a sort of prediction for the future. For example, we could say the outlook for the economy is not great after Covid 19.

Another meaning is related to how you see the world. In this example, we could say that someone has a positive, or sunny, outlook of the world because they always think something good is going to happen. On the other hand, it is also possible that people have a negative or bleak outlook on life.

What about you? Do you have a sunny or bleak outlook on life? Do you use all of the programs I have mentioned in this podcast?

Before you go, and before I talk about my special little extra piece of information, I’d like to ask you to subscribe to this podcast so you don’t miss any future episodes. You can do this on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts, or any of the hundreds of other free podcast platforms around the world. Also, if you know anyone else who is learning English and you think would benefit from this podcast, please tell them and spread the word.

And so my special piece of information just for you loyal listeners who have made it through to the end of this podcast. Did you know that all of the letters for the word ‘typewriter’ can be found on the top line of a standard QWERTY keyboard?

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Word origin stories of the Office products
Office origin story



  1. These podcasts excel, really. They are extremely vocabulary enriching, Stephen. Words, expressions we never think about, just take them for granted!

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