Rules of the Etymology Playground

Linguists in academia don’t seem very fond of word origins. They like to focus on the tiny phonological bits of languages [p,t,k] or the grand syntactic structure that binds sentences together. Somehow, the very juicy goodness of language, the words, are either too big or too small to care about. BOO. I love word origins. I don’t know how important they are, but I want to spend all my time paying attention to them. But! Before we have fun, there are some ground rules that we need to agree on before we can safely and happily play together in the sandbox of word origins. This is our first negotiation on this subject, this should continue as a dialogue (probably in the comments). I’ll start: Here are 3 rules to counteract misconceptions I often encounter.

1.     The origin of a word is not the true or right meaning, just the literal one.

  • WRONG: “The true meaning of hippopotamus is river horse.”
  • RIGHT: “The literal meaning of hippopotamus is river horse,  how cute is that? You can see these word-parts in other words you already know. Mesopotamia is the land between rivers, and a hippogriff is made of a horse and an eagle.” (See Best Monday Comic Ever)

2.     The literal meaning of a word is interesting, but should not affect the modern usage negatively.

  • WRONG: “Don’t use the word podium when you mean lectern. Podium literally means place where your feet stand so if you’re not standing on it, it can’t be a podium.”
  • RIGHT: “The ‘pod’ in ‘podium’ literally refers to your feet, the same root as pedestrian and podiatry, but the use of this term has expanded to include any speaking station one stands behind, like a lectern.” (Sorry, mom)

3. Don’t fall for folk etymology.  Folk etymology is a false story about the history of a word with no evidence. Based on a shallow information, someone invents a story in their head, (rarely for malicious reasons), and it catches on as bland trivia in mass emails and causes people to think they know things, and makes them break rules 1 and 2. Do not feed the folk etymology trolls.

  • WRONG: “I used to use rule of thumb before I learned it refers to how thick the stick could be to beat your wife. You should stop using it too. Misogyny is bad.”
  • RIGHT: “The origin of rule of thumb is unclear, but probably dates back to a time when body parts were useful units of measurement. You might want to avoid using the term, because many fools believe it has to do with domestic abuse and will try to talk to you about it which gets very dull. Misogyny is bad, but is not relevant to this idiom.”

Now that those pitfalls have been identified, we can immerse our ticklish toes in the sandbox and play on… and studying word origins is more than play, it becomes useful bonus information in many scenarios. Etymology helps you win spelling bees. Etymology helps you make sense of SAT words. Etymology can help you find cognates in other languages you are learning or at least trying read road signs in. Etymology often uncovers a concrete object which has been abstracted into a grander concept. For example:

  • Boustrophedonic writing alternates the direction of the writing every line from left to right, then right to left. The ‘boustro’ in boustrophedonic literally means oxen. “strophe” is the same root as ‘apostrophe and catastrophe, which means ‘to turn.” The visual image of the turning of oxen evokes the plowing of a field, methodically zig zagging from one side to the other. Knowing the component parts of a word makes the abstract meaning easier to remember, and turning a word into a story creates stronger and more satisfying connections in your mind, making you (me) more likely to use that word in the future.

The history of words is worth studying. Have a good time, giggle about euphemisms, try on many language hats, I just ask that you play nicely in the sandbox.

February 15, 2012

in career,english,Etymology,etymonline,history of language,morphemes,Words & Origins

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben February 15, 2012 at 5:57 PM

Hm, a thought occurred to me (that’s a weird phrase in itself). Words are all like mini traditions. They have origins, and some are changed over years, and they vary depending on cultures. Some traditions have meaning, some have lost meaning, or have hidden/forgotten meaning. Word’s equally have semantics, in whole or in parts. And people use them in the same way we practice traditions, just a whole lot more often.
Just an observation. Your thoughts?


Andy February 16, 2012 at 6:39 AM

Awww…it’s hippo comic. I think that’s still my favorite, especially after the Radiolab dealing with direction where they mentioned the hippocampus and it being both a sea monster horse and a very important part of the brain that just happens to look like a seahorse.

I’m still trying to figure out fax. My coworker asked how to pronounce “facsimile”, which kind of surprised me but also made me think about the roots, since I knew simile and fac appears in a lot of words. I didn’t know the actual meaning, but it turns out to be along the lines of “to make”, making facsimile a compound of fac and simile. The bastardized “fax” now bothers me because I now know that it represents the less significant part of the “facsimile”. Even more annoying was this parcel from Wikipedia: “Western Union began a “Faxcimile Telegraphy” service in 1935″. I bet Western Union rides bikecycles too.


Leave a Comment

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

Previous post:

Next post: