In grade school, I never liked being called nice. For some reason I couldn’t put my finger on, I felt in this word the connotation of being a pushover. When, in college, I had virtual access to the Oxford English Dictionary and its 600,000 words, I had my first insight into the reason why—the word nice isn’t so nice after all. This word has gone through a process of amelioration, which means that it’s gotten a better definition over time. Before it became a synonym for “good” or “kind,” it meant “foolish.” It turns out that my grade-school self wasn’t too far off.
That experience was the first of many revelations from etymology. An English major in college, I was exposed to the OED early on. I loved exploring this virtual resource and thrilled at the prospect of being able to look up not only a word’s definition, but also its origin and history of usage. As I looked up words for various class assignments and to satisfy my own curiosity, I started to get a sense of the depth language carries.
English, which has been shaped by a variety of languages over the course of hundreds of years, is a treasure trove of meaning just waiting to be uncovered. As I reflect on the title attached to this piece, I realize that the word origins include Old English (word, the, to, your), French (guide), Latin (expand, vocabulary) and, believe it or not, Dr. Seuss (nerd). So many different streams of history had to come together for this article’s title to be written!
Exploring the origins of words made me not only more curious about the words I use each day, but also more attuned to what I say. For example, when I learned the word sarcasm’s Greek origins literally translate to “to strip off the flesh,” I felt the piercing, and even hurtful, nature of sarcasm in a new way. Now, when I run into an unkind and sarcastic post on social media, I’m less likely to reciprocate with sarcasm, because I can so vividly envision what the word really means.
New windows on the world
When I go looking for the origins of words, what I find are stories of past people’s ways of viewing the world. The word window means “wind eye” in Old Norse. Back in the days before glass, an opening in the wall was an opening for wind as well as a chance to see outside! It’s fun to be surprised by connections I never thought possible—like the fact that “precocious” and “apricot” are linked by a common word that refers to early-ripening fruit, or the fact that “horror” and “hedgehog” share roots in words that have to do with bristles and bristling. What I also find is diversity—a language is often shaped by many other languages. Different languages render words and phrases differently, and even today different languages can reveal a different way of seeing the world.
Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky is well-known for her studies on how language shapes our thinking. From having language to describe different shades of color to being able to directionally orient yourself, how we use our language determines how we think about and interact with the world. English is interesting in that it was very early on informed by many languages—Norse, Anglo-Saxon, French, and Latin, among others—as a result of conquest. Each language brought to English not only new vocabulary but new ways of interacting with the world. For example, the Anglo-Saxon language utilized words needed in a warrior society; the Norman Conquest brought with the French language its own methods of governance and law.
It’s amazing to see the connotations words carry with them, and how language is used accordingly. For example, Romantic vs. Germanic languages bring up different connotations for English speakers. When I’m writing an email to my boss, I may be more inclined to use French and Latin-inspired words over Anglo-Saxon-inspired ones, because the French and Latin sound more formal (like “This project was difficult.”) With my friends, I’m a bit more likely to use Saxon words (like “I’m sorry you’re having a tough day.”) This is something I do without thinking about it, but it’s so fascinating to know that all these instinctive word choices have centuries of history behind them!
If you’re interested in word origins or discovering new words, but don’t know where to begin, here are a few places to get you started.
01. Using the Online Etymology Dictionary
Not to be confused with the other OED, which is of course a great (though not free) resource! I’ve found this site useful for a quick glance into word origins. Though it doesn’t have entries for all words, nor does it show the word’s usage over time, I appreciate the compact origin notations it gives. It’s also free to use!
This may seem like a simplistic suggestion, but I love running into new vocabulary in the books I’m reading. It’s another opportunity to come into contact with the multitude of words we don’t know. I might suggest slightly older books for this exercise, as vocabulary falls out of use over time and there’s more of a chance to discover a word you’ve never encountered before. Another wonderful place to gain new vocabulary is from works that have been translated or use another variety of English. For example, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine takes place in Scotland, and not only does the protagonist use English vocabulary unfamiliar to those who don’t speak British English, she also has a vocabulary informed by her passion for crossword puzzles. I often place a sticky note on the outside of the book I’m reading to write down words to look up later.
03. Visiting language sites
In this day and age, language-learning sites abound. I love looking through articles on sites like Babbel or FluentU for information about interesting word and phrase origins. Untranslatable is a repository for “untranslatable” phrases and slang across languages, and I’ve found that following the conversation of contributors all over the world via social media is both educational and illuminating. I’ve learned from this group that phrases can also reveal a bit about the culture they come from. For example, the English phrase “not my cup of tea” is decidedly British, but in Peruvian Spanish, an equivalent is “not the saint of my devotion.” I like the idea of adopting phrases and words from other languages into my vocabulary so that I can better express my thoughts and feelings. And as we learned with the Danish concept of hygge, which gained popularity in the United States about five years ago, some words have no direct translation in English, which can introduce totally new concepts to our thinking!
04. Making words a part of your entertainment
I have fond memories of a now-defunct site called Save the Words. The point of the website was to keep a record of words that had fallen out of the language and to bring the words back into usage through adoption. You could choose a word from the site to use in your everyday speaking, like “prandicle” for a snack or “tussicate” for cough. But though this site is no more, games like Balderdash make discovering the definitions of old words fun. For those who want just a quick bite of etymology, I’ve loved the TEDEd “Mysteries of Vernacular” video series, which explores the histories of individual words. There are also a few podcasts that explore the etymology of words and phrases, like “Whole 9 Yards.”
05. The Oxford English Dictionary
Okay, I couldn’t resist adding this one, even though it’s not typically freely accessible unless you’re a college student and your school has a subscription. For those of us not in college, the OED does offer a few ways to get some of the content free, and it’s worth seeing if your local library has a subscription. My mother told me that one of the first things she did as a financially stable adult was get a museum membership. For those more linguistically inclined, perhaps you’d consider an OED subscription.
I’ve found that being attentive to word origins allows me to be more intentional about the way I say things. But also, I think it allows me to say more, with greater precision. But it can also be a romp through the wilds that comprise our English language. Join me, won’t you? What word or phrase are you curious about? Check it out!