There is debate on the evolution of man, but there is no doubt that words do evolve over time. I have on my desk a word origin tear-off calendar. It was a gift from my wife. Where words come from sometimes fascinates me as much as the words themselves.
The twenty-dollar word for studying word origin is etymology. The etymology of a word is not necessarily its original definition but rather how the word came to common use, how it has changed, and how it is used today.
What are some of the ways we get words?
Stealing: Dennis Hensley, in a talk called “Word Power”, mentioned the fact that we ”steal” words from lots of other languages. We don’t change them at all. That’s why it is so difficult to pin English words down to rules, because those other languages we take them from have their own rules. Words like taco, molasses, and futon all come from other languages.
The need for speed: We get tired of saying longer words, so we shorten them. Picture element becomes pixel, moving picture show becomes movie, and cybernetic organism becomes cyborg. Were you expecting that last one? Here are a few more writing-related ones: fax from facsimile, memo from memorandum, and ad from advertisement (or the less shortened “advert” used in England).
Combining: Two or more words combine to make a new one like ballpoint pen, notepad, or paperback writer.
Blending: Teens like these. A brand new word is “chexting”. It comes from cheating blending with texting and refers to getting the answer to a test from your buddy via text (using your cell phone, which is short for cellular telephone). A docudrama is a documentary that is dramatized.
Coinage: We make them up. Sometimes they die out, and sometimes they find their way into common use. Often authors are the perpetrators. For instance we have Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, to thank for galumphing and chortle.
Here are a few word origins related to writing just so you can sound important at the next meeting of your writers’ group.
Essay: The English noun “essay” comes from the French verb “essayer,” to try. Early intellectuals believed their manuscripts to be only a modest attempt to put their ideas on paper.
Book: Middle English, from Old English “bōc”; a book, deed or document. It is also akin to Old High German “buoh” for book and Gothic “boka” which referred to a letter.
It’s fun to see where words came from, and it’s fun just to see how they change in your own lifetime. I know this is a small discussion of word origins, but I hope you enjoyed reading it. If you did, please pass it on, leave a comment below, or you can send me chocolate.
Until next time, write on.