Etymology: The Origin of Words
Becoming Interested in the Origin of Words
Words, like facts, are
difficult to remember out of context. Remembering is greatly
facilitated when you have a body of information with which to associate either a
word or a fact. For words, interesting origins or histories will help provide a
context. For example, a hippopotamus is a "river horse," from the Greek
meaning "horse," and potamos, meaning "river."
Indiana is called the
Hoosier state, and its people Hoosiers. Why? In the early days, the pioneers
were gruff in manner; when someone knocked at the front door, a pioneer's voice
would often boom, "Who's yere?"
If you were offered a
Hobson's choice, would you know what was meant? Thomas Hobson owned a livery
stable in seventeenth-century England. He loved his horses, and to prevent any
one horse from being overworked, he hired them out in turn, beginning with stall
number one. Customers had to take the horses they were given. Thus Hobson's
choice means no choice at all. (Pauk, p. 314)
Etymology is the study of
the origins of words. The English language is living and growing. Although many
of our words have been part of our language for many years, new words are added
all the time. Following are various ways our language is influenced.
- Derived from Foreign Words
- English, in many cases, has been commonly expanded by incorporating foreign
words into it. Most of our language has ancient Anglo-Saxon or Latin origins.
Other languages have also added to our vocabularies.
- Additions through
Technology & Products - Our words often reflect current interests, trends, and innovations. One of the most recent contributors to our language
has been computer technology, which has created words such as bytes, monitor,
Another way new words come
into our language is through the development of products. Some examples include:
Kleenex, Walkman, Scotch tape, Xerox, and Linoleum.
- People's Names - sometimes
when a person invents or introduces something, that thing becomes associated
with the person's name. The person, through time, is forgotten while the name
lives on in our language. Examples include:
- mesmerize - F.A. Mesmer,
an Austrian doctor and hypnotist.
- sideburns - an American
English alteration of burnsides, Ambrose E. Burnside, a Union general.
- Words from Letters - The
initials for the names of things may actually come to replace the names. The
initials become the words that represent the thing, concept, or group. The
following are examples of words that have developed from initials.
- TV - TeleVision
- DWI - Driving While
- COD - Cash On Delivery
- ZIP - Zone Improvement
- Word Histories - Some
words also have interesting histories. Learning the stories behind the meanings
is a good way to learn those words. The following examples will give you an idea
of how history can affect language.
- footman - It was once
thought to bring bad luck if a person stepped on the door threshold when
entering a house. Rich people hired a servant to stand at their doors. His job
was to guard against a guest's stepping on the threshold. The guard became known
as a footman.
- hooker - A synonym for
prostitute. The term became popular during the Civil War. The women involved
were camp followers. General "Fighting Joe" Hooker approved their presence in
order to boost the morale of his men.
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