Daddy, Where Do Words Come From?

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.Writing - Magifying glass-where words come from

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.

Writing - roadblock run 2The 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.

Magifyer 2Coinage: 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.

Appendix: In Latin, it means “the part that hangs.” A human appendix hangs at the end of the large intestine; appendices “hang out” at the end of books.Mechanical-Pencil holding tip

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.

Perhaps someone was writing a long letter and someone said, “Are you writing a book?”Writing - words - trust

It’s fun to see whereWriting - word origins - chocolate 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.

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15 comments on “Daddy, Where Do Words Come From?
  1. Lynne says:

    Useful information to know. Nice read!

  2. Double-like! From a linguistics major and Classics minor out of Univ of PA (in her other life). I bet you’ll see your convictions here:

  3. edgarone2 says:

    Are new words mainly from writers or from politicians?
    Chocolate are wonderful. I often only have hot chocolates.

  4. mcwoman says:

    Loved this, Peter. I often talk about word origins in my writing class. I constantly try different tactics to get my class interested in words–most of the time, my attempt falls on deaf ears. I’ll also use your post. . . oh, and chocolate is my favorite, too.

  5. grassroots08 says:

    Next Prof. Mallett will be cover the lost words that we stopped using a while back and Websters decided to drop, due to short usage of the same word. Thanks for the cool posting, Cheers, Don

  6. Great post, I’d send chocolate but it would have teeth marks in it and little smudgy bits where I may have licked it. We can’t be too careful so I will just eat it and you can ponder on the thought that was there.

  7. Julie Luek says:

    My dad was a wordsmith while he was alive and had multiple pre-internet tools like dictionaries, thesauruses and yes, usually a book on etymology. Sometimes right in the middle of a conversation (or rant, as the case may be) he’d stop mid-thought and head to his shelves to look up a word or its meaning and feel compelled to share with the family. I’m quite sure, despite my adolescent eye rolling, this is where I learned to love words.

  8. valrfederoff says:

    Etymology is my favorite fallback as a substitute teacher. I invent fun ways for students to remember meanings and spellings from using etymology. This was a fun light post on a day that I needed just that. Thanks.

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"A writer looks at a screen or piece of paper like a canvas. They see a country unexplored, a picture unpainted, a tale not told. They dare to venture into the barren land, explore its dark corners, and paint its pictures. Then they unveil the epic with the goal of compelling people to visit their newly discovered territory.”
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