Etymological Entertainments #1

Etymology, the history of words, is entertaining and informative.

It’s entertaining to find out that the word idiosyncrasy is formed from three Greek roots: idio– (personal, private, one’s own), syn (together), and krasis (a mixture, a blend)—so an idiosyncrasy is the personal things you have mixed together.

The word idiot comes from the Greek idiôtês, a private person, a person who keeps to himself, a person with no professional knowledge, a commonplace fellow. An idiom was originally one’s own personal way of speaking, though that’s not what the word means today.

The Greek syn and its assimilated forms sym or syl are found in many English words, such as synthesissymphony, and syllable. And the Greek word krasis is related to the Greek word kratêr, a bowl in which wine was mixed with water; the crater of a volcano or the craters on the Moon or Mars have the same shape as this kind of mixing bowl.

This kind of etymology tells the stories of particular words, or perhaps groups of words—for we often find that one etymology will lead to another, as the etymology of idiosyncrasy leads to the etymology of idiot and idiomsynthesissymphonysyllable; and crater.

The word etymology itself comes from two Greek words, the adjective etumos, which means “true” or “real”, and logos, which has many meanings, including “word” or “account”; so an etymology is etymologically the true account of a word. The origin of a word, however, does not necessarily determine its meaning today, and we can never simply refer to the etymology of a word to settle how it should be used now.

There is also another kind of etymology, a kind of systematic etymology, which is less concerned with the idiosyncratic origins of individual words and more concerned with more general facts of language change. For example, here is a list of some German words and some English words with the same meanings:

            German                    English                       German                    English

            Tanz                            dance                          Tür                              door

            Tag                              day                              Tochter                       daughter

            trinken                       to drink                      Traum                        dream

            tief                              deep                            Tot                              death

If we had just one correspondence—say German “Tanz” and English “dance”—we might not make much of it, but a list like this is suggestive. This list allows us to propose a reasonable hypothesis: there is a regular correspondence between German “t” and English “d”. This hypothesis needs further examination. For instance, does it hold if the sounds occur in the middle or at the end of the words? If the correspondence holds, what does it mean? Are there other similar correspondences between German and English? Are there correspondences between English sounds and the sounds of other languages? All of these questions are the business of historical linguistics, one of the four areas of philology.

In this part of the blog I will deal with both of these kinds of etymology, the histories of interesting words or groups of words and also the systematic correspondences and the historical sound changes that are the business of historical linguistics, and maybe some other topics in between or neighbouring these. Next time I will talk about the word helicopter.

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