Words have a history. Some of those histories are beautiful, pleasant places and some are not. So, today, we focus on words and the meaning via their history that they carry with them in our communications and messages.
Take the word Michael, my name. It has an interesting origin. It’s the name of an archangel, from late Latin. It has a Greek form, Mikhael, and a Hebrew one, Mikha-el. Not to brag or anything, but it means, “Who is like God?”
Let’s take another word, say, Catherine, the name of my boss. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it comes from Medieval Latin, Katerina, and from the Greek, Aikaterina.
Now this is fascinating. That name is also used to describe a torture device, called the “Catherine Wheel.” And because my boss has a great sense of humor she is not cutting this out of the blog.
According to the same source as above, “Catherine Wheel” is derived from “St. Catherine, a legendary virgin martyr from the time of Maximinus. She was tortured on a spiked wheel. Her name day is Nov. 25. A popular saint in the Middle Ages, which accounts for the popularity of the given name.”
While some words some popped out of thin air – meaning we can’t trace their roots – many have a lineage that takes you back far, far in time.
Novelist Penelope Lively describes English as “a museum inside our heads.” In her book, Moon Tiger, she writes: “Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms…We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard.”
Many people are fascinated by the meaning of words, including Dave Wilton, who runs a website, called WordOrigins.org
We asked him to comment on why he’s hooked on word origins and its importance to our communications.
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You have a website called WordOrigins.org, which, as the name implies, tells us how many of the words we use today originated. Why did you start it?
The website goes back to 1997. At the time I was looking for a job in Silicon Valley and at that time in order to show that you were tech-savvy and forward thinking, you had to have your resume on the web. But I didn’t just want a bare-bones site with just my professional qualifications or one with pictures of my cat—even then cats were a big thing on the internet. So, I searched around for some ideas for content that might induce some stranger actually want to read my website, and I struck upon word origins.
I’ve always had a latent fascination with word origins and language but I’d never seriously pursued the subject. The site started small and light, but it became something of a Frankenstein over time. The site grew larger, and I became more and more rigorous, honing my research skills. Now I’ve even returned to school to get my PhD in Old English literature. Ironically, the site that I created to get a job in high tech has led me away from that field.
Why are you so fascinated with this subject?
Everyone ponders or has opinions about language to some degree or another. Language is the greatest tool we have; arguably, it’s is the one thing that separates us from the other animals. And it not only defines us as a species, we also use our idiolects to define ourselves as individuals. Accents and dialect carry social meaning. I was listening to an interview with actor Kenneth Branagh the other day, and he told of how he moved to England as a boy and had to quickly drop his Belfast accent if he wanted to fit in with the other teenagers in his new home. Language defines us, so of course it is a subject that generates intense interest.
Language is also one of our great democratic institutions. Despite the efforts of some prescriptivists trying to tell us how to “properly” use language, no one person, government, or institution owns it. Language is the communal property of humanity. We all contribute to how to it’s made and used. It’s the original crowd-sourced project.
Tracing how words and phrases come about is to take a trip through the worlds of history, technology, and geography. The origin of salary gets you into the pay practices of the Roman army. The story of kangaroo exposes you to what happens when a modern civilization comes into first contact with an aboriginal one. When you start looking up a word, you never know where it will take you.
Why are word origins important to know?
At one level word origins are not all that important. You don’t need to know them to use the language well, and they can’t cure disease or hunger or bring about world peace. But the study of word origins is important in two respects.
First, since language is a communal creation, its history reflects our history. The study of word origins can help us find out who we are and where we come from, what we prize and what we fear. Second, etymology can be a great exercise in critical thinking. All sorts of false stories about where words come from appear, and they are repeated enough that they become generally accepted. To delve any distance at all into word origins shows you how much of what we think we know rests on pretty shaky foundations. It teaches you to question assumptions and ask for evidence before accepting a claim as fact.
In an Associated Press story about new words being added to the dictionary, you were dismissive about any kind of cultural trend being seen by the additions. Why is that? Don’t new words tell us about ourselves?
They do tell us about ourselves. What I was critical in that particular article was the notion that you could discover cultural trends based on the new words included in a single revision of a dictionary, or even more narrowly the words singled out by the publisher’s PR department in the press release. That selection of words is more likely to reinforce existing ideas about cultural trends rather than tell you anything new. In order to suss out cultural trends, you have to take a much broader view. You need to look at the entire corpus of new words, or at the entire revision history of a particular dictionary.
You also wrote the book, “Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends,” which gets to the truth of how some well-known phrases really came about. What prompted you to tackle the subject?
I actually had written another, entirely different, manuscript on the history of English and etymology, and I was shopping that around. Erin McKean, who was an editor at Oxford University Press at the time, liked the idea of my doing a book, but didn’t think that manuscript was right for OUP. (Frankly, it wasn’t right at all. That original manuscript was over ambitious and amateurish.) So the two of us hammered out the idea for the book in a series of emails. It was an ideal topic because I could build off the research I’d already done for the website and for that earlier manuscript, but the content was new, not just a rehash of what was already on the web. And I especially liked the topic because it brought me full circle. Back when I was deciding what type of content to include on my website, I had toyed with the thought of addressing urban legends more generally. But there were a number of excellent websites, like Snopes.com, on that topic already in existence, so I moved on to etymology. It was nice to return and combine the two interests.
Can you give us an example of a wildly exaggerated urban legend?
The stories around the phrase the whole nine yards never cease to amaze me for their diversity. I don’t know of any other words or phrases that have generated half as many different tales as to where they come from. The explanations run from the carrying capacity of cement trucks to the length of material needed to make a proper kilt. And none of them have a shred of solid evidence behind them.
It’s only in the past few years that we’ve pretty much nailed down the origin—the entry on my WordOrigins.org website is from 2007 and it’s out of date — and the origin is extremely prosaic and not terribly interesting in and of itself. The phrase comes from the idea of a long list of inventory items and only dates to the early 1960s. There doesn’t seem to be a single point of origin or definitive tale as to why it’s “nine” and “yards.” The length of the supposed list seems to have been chosen arbitrarily. Yet from this quite ordinary origin, we get this wonderful panoply of colorful stories from people who desperately want a compelling origins tale.
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So there you have it, word origins in a nutshell. Which according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, its origin is explained this way:
“c.1200, nute-scalen; see nut + shell. Figurative use with reference to “great condensation” (1570s) is in allusion to a copy of the Iliad, mentioned by Pliny, which was so small it could fit into the shell of a nut.”
Which, by the way, is summed up this way, “1590s, “bewitch, enchant,” from M.Fr. fasciner (14c.), from L. fascinatus, pp. of fascinare “bewitch, enchant, fascinate,” from fascinus “spell, witchcraft,” of uncertain origin. Possibly from Gk. baskanos “bewitcher, sorcerer,” with form influenced by L. fari “speak” (see fame). The Greek word may be from a Thracian equivalent of Gk. phaskein “to say;” cf. also enchant, and Ger. besprechen “to charm,” from sprechen “to speak.” Earliest used of witches and of serpents, who were said to be able to cast a spell by a look that rendered one unable to move or resist. Sense of “delight, attract” is first recorded 1815.”
We will stop now… and back later in the week with words with a global attitude.
Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.