Friday, November 09, 2007


etymology n (pl. -ies) 1 a the historically verifiable sources of the formation of a word and the development of its meaning. b an account of these. 2 the branch of linguistic science concerned with etymologies. [OF ethimologie f. L. etymologia f. Gk etumologia (as ETYMON, -LOGY)]
etymon n (pl etyma) the word that gives rise to a derivative or a borrowed or later form. [L f. Gk etumon (neut. of etumos true), the literal sense or original form of a word]

- The Concise Oxford Dictionary.

We go in for etymology quite a lot around here, and our copies of the above-cited Concise Oxford Dictionary, along with Collins and a few others, are well-thumbed. They're especially useful in deep, heated, (usually political) debates in which increasingly long and obscure words are being employed and finally someone says: "I'll look that up, to prove you wrong!" and the origins and exact meanings of a particular word are poured over and considered upon.

I find it fascinating. Our choice of words says so much about us and our motives and with words it's possible to change people's thinking about their view of 'right' and 'wrong'. Whole, lucrative professions are of course built on this alone - politics, religion, teaching and writing being the ones that immediately spring to mind. In many respects it could indeed be said that the pen is mightier than the sword.

Modern day English politicians seem to be particularly aware of the power and meaning of words, choosing them carefully and cunningly in an attempt to skew the public's perception of what they're actually saying. "Offering help" or "support" instead of "coercing", for example (see my previous post for documented instances of this). Then we get into the nonsensical realm of trying to assert people's 'responsibility to make full use of the support offered' - which sentence appeared several times in a government policy document I was reading recently, and which, of course, is another convoluted way of saying 'coercion'. I could go further and say 'bully' and probably would, if I was also a word-crafty politician. Except that then I'd be on the other side and having to buy into such laughable concepts as asserting people's 'responsibility to make full use of the support offered'.

In this world of word-warfare, a good dictionary is our best defence. Ours have also been key learning tools in our home education. Our teens are all extremely adept in their use of dictionaries and Lyddie became interested when she was about three years old, wondering why all those letters were indented into the pages. The appendices and preceding chapters contain invaluable information too. We often refer to these to check points of syntax, amongst other things.

According to this Wikipedia page, the original Oxford English Dictionary was the life's work of four men, three of whom died before its completion! I plan to invest in a full copy of this before much longer. Online dictionaries can be useful I find, but not as versatile as the real thing. You can't feel the weight - physical and metaphorical - in your hand of an online dictionary.


Blogger Ruth said...

Oh we love a good dictionary here too. In fact so much so certain members of the family hide them :)

10:02 am, November 09, 2007  
Blogger Betula said...

I feel very strongly about how language is used. H

ow language that is well-meaning can be very damaging - disempowering: "I think you should..."/"I would advise you to..."; some language is dismissive and disrespectful: "don't cry"/"don't feel guilty"/"you're over-reacting". And yet just by changing your language you can really help another person/your child. You can empower them: "how do you feel about trying..."/"some people find ... helpful/fun" and accept them "I can see you're really upset about this"/"this situation is making you feel guilty"/"this has made you really furious".

And then there's the side of word choice which can change (gradually) common social perceptions. Like 'chair' instead of 'chairman' for example. There is a lot of debate in the breastfeeding helpers world as to how we should be talking about the 'benefits' of breasfeeding. At the moment we say 'breastfeeding makes you more clever' or 'reduces the risk of diabetes' but actually breastfeeding is the norm so what we ought to be saying, in order to normalise breastfeeding is 'formula milk makes you less clever' or 'increases the risk of diabetes'. But women who find they don't succeed at breastfeeding feel very strong feelings of guilt and often the anger that comes from that is directed at the breastfeeding helpers. Would those feelings be even stronger if we used a language that was more honest? Or are we not offering women a chance to be truly informed before they make feeding decisions by using dishonest language?

10:44 am, November 09, 2007  
Blogger Dani said...

I work in the voluntary sector, where words and phrases are pressed into new and interesting meanings on a daily basis. So if we haven't got enough staff to do something, we have to explain that this is a 'capacity issue' for us. A whole load of meetings and websites are (for some inexplicable reason) now christened 'hubs'. And there is an intriguing new fashion for inventing new words by joining two or more existing ones together, often with capital letters or punctuation marks in the middle (eg Capacitybuilders, ChangeUp, net:gain)

We have gathered some corkers from the world of education too. When P. was at school, we once got a letter home saying that part of the year's design technology curriculum was that the children would "assemble and dissemble a sandwich".

Allie always fumes about the national literacy strategy's misappropration of the word "recount". In the strategy, and therefore in schools, this is not a verb, meaning to count again or to give an account of something, but a noun, meaning a retelling of a story. So children are expected to write a recount of something they have read.

My all time favourite is the almost complete reversal of the meaning of the word "stakeholder".

1:30 pm, November 09, 2007  
Blogger Author One said...

When I was at college I throughly adored this aspect of my English Language course, and loved pouring over the huge volumes of the OED in the library. Sadly the appalling lack of any instruction in grammar left me floundering in the other areas of the course, and I gave it up. Still love words and their roots though.


5:44 pm, November 09, 2007  
Blogger R said...

Have you read The Surgeon Of Crowthorne:A Tale of Murder,Madness and the Oxford English Dictionary ?

12:36 am, November 10, 2007  
Blogger Mieke said...

The other day I was talking to my Mum about how the (Dutch) language seems to have gone so much more shallow. For instance, hardly anybody nowadays uses sayings and proverbs. Such a shame, because in my opinion they're the decoration of a language / the icing on the cake (?) and they hold a lot of wisdom. My Mum often quotes her grandmother, who seems to have had an appropriate quote for every situation. I try and keep the Dutch language alive with my children and at the same time we try and learn as much as we can about the English language. Not an easy task, and I've noticed that there's a third language developing here, a mixture of English and Dutch. I do my best to keep them separated, but it gets harder and harder and I've caught myself talking gibberish a few times now.
Dictionaries and books with synonyms and idiom (in both languages) are very popular and often consulted in this house.
Have you heard of Michael Quinion? (I'm trying my hand at links here, don't know how it comes out!) He runs an absolutely fascinating website and I subscribe to his newsletter, which is always filled to the rim with interesting - etymological - facts and all kinds of trivia. He comes up with the most fascinating stories, from all over the world. My regular Saturday morning read!

9:06 am, November 10, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

LOL Ruth! It sounds like a story (or two) lies therein ;-)

Clare, you make some excellent points. I'm quite pedantic about the use of language and painfully aware of the way in which use of casual throwaway type statements - which are actually orders thoughtlessly impeding another person's autonomy or, at best, unsolicited advice - can combine to create and perpetuate unhealthy relationships.

Dani, I like the word 'hub', as it pertains to something at the centre of offshoots which could probably be described as 'spokes'!

'Capacity issue' - that's a new one on me! I'll be looking out for that.

Assemble and dissemble a sandwich - this was from school? Can you imagine how the likes of Messrs Iball or Mooney would have responded to that in an ed.phil. from a HEr?!

And I didn't realise until I read that Wikipedia link quite the extent to which 'stakeholder' has been reversed!

Tech, such a pity how courses can go like that, isn't it?

Raquel, no but the title intrigues me! I'll be on the lookout for it now.

Mieke, I wholeheartedly agree with you about sayings and proverbs. Our grandparents' generation seemed to be so rich in them, didn't it? They're a convenient way or retaining and conveying useful knowledge and information. I wonder why we're apparently losing the tradition now.

Your link worked well :-) and no I hadn't heard of him, but will bookmark the site, which looks excellent. Thanks!

8:32 am, November 13, 2007  
Blogger Beyondmywildest. said...

I try hard to not elaborate and only answer questions that have actually been asked. Recently a nurse asked if she went to school in a way that expected an affirmative responsive so I just said 'No'. Then the nurse stared at me expectantly and I stared back until eventually she asked again and I said 'No. So daytime appointments are great for us'. And then she hurried on her way. Not sure why she asked now actually, I presumbed it was to try and work appointments around school but maybe it was to do with informing the school nurse. We haven't heard anything after six weeks now so maybe she wasn't concerned about it or didn't know who to tell. I think thats the only time we've been asked, mostly we get asked 'Who's got/Is it chicken pox/measles?' So maybe people just assume she's poorly.

12:34 am, November 22, 2007  

Post a comment

<< Home