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Etymology – the origins of words

February 17, 2010

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and for wordsmiths such as we authors, a fascinating insight into ones language and its evolving usage.  Etymologies are not definitions of words in themselves but rather explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded anywhere from 300 or 3,000 years ago.

what are word for?

.........Words words words......

With the blessing of the internet, we are easily able to research the origins of words. One of the better etymology dictionaries is found here.  Generally, a word will be dated from its first surviving written record. However its only an approximate date as especially before the 1600s, manuscripts and the written word was a rare commodity and words will have been in common conversations for centuries before.

Here’s a collection of interesting ones:

Ill – c 1200 meaning malevolent or morally evil. form the old Norse word meaning ‘bad to me’

Funk –  depression ill humour from the Scottish word meaning to “fail though panic”.

Bride – from a verb in the Indo – European family meaning – to make soup – which was the daughter in laws job with family structures over 5 000 years ago.

Utpoia – from the greek meaning “no place” a subject written and dreamed about by countless artists and whose meaning has bent with the current political or social beliefs.

Gay – from old english meaning ‘full of mirth or joy’; however, a germanic meaning “brilliant and showy’  and Scottish word ‘gey’ (pertaining to gey cats who were young tramps who accompanied older tramps) is reputed to be the accepted reason for its current slang usage. Regardless, the word ‘gay’ had an overall essence of promiscuity from the 1890s with the suggestion of immorality as far back as the early 1600s.

Robot – from an old czeck word “robotnik’ meaning to slave. It was first used in a 1920s play by Karl Capek, but cemented into fiction by Asimov in 1941.

Slave – 1290 from a French word meaning a person who is the property of another; but linking back to the word “Slav” – which encompassed all slaves. This was because so many Slavic people were sold into that life by their conquering people. Obviously a word for ‘slave’ has been in circulation for alot longer ( Old English wealh or thrall), but this word has become the accepted one throughout.

Zombie 1871  from West African / creole origin – ‘zumbi’ meaning phantom.

People will continue to use words as they will, finding new or wider meanings for old words and coining new ones to fit new situations.  You’ve only to look at Shakespearean text to see how differently common language is used between the ages; given that his work is reported to have been the soap opera standards of the day.

Its interesting to see how and where words formed and the way in which their meanings have changed over time and difficult to deny the inner geek when a wayward meaning is discovered. Brush up on some of these words and you too can be a font of useless trivia.

Do you have any favourite ones you’d like to share?

Image  via Flickr

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  1. adampb permalink
    February 17, 2010 2:22 am

    When I was studying Greek literature and Roman history at uni (some time last century) I came across a large number of words that I remember. They often have no direct equivalent, but have been accepted into the English language, and convey such a depth of meaning. Miasma, hubris, virtus to name a few.

    And then there are the funny ones such as ning nong, doofus, blatherskite.

    I like to balance out the intellectual discoveries with jokes about bodily functions.

  2. February 17, 2010 5:33 am

    Oh you can’t beat a good bodily function word… check out micturition.. I just need to craft a reason to use it …

  3. February 17, 2010 1:07 pm

    I can think of only right now. I looked up STAT once, it’s derived from the Latin word Statum meaning immediate/ly.

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