A persistent reaction of mine while reading is to react with little starts of pleasure when I encounter a little etymology lesson tucked away in the pages of my read. Recently, for instance, I found out that ‘hornbook‘–referring to treatises that aim to provide balanced summaries of a particular area of legal study–originated in England in the fifteenth century, referring to a framed page of study materials–perhaps religious like a prayer, or perhaps more mundane like an alphabet–laminated by a sheet of transparent horn. I also learned that actors perform ‘roles’ because in the same time period, they performed their parts by reading lines written on rolls of paper. And so on.
Every week it seems, brings forth an etymology lesson of sorts, one which sends the nerd antennae quivering and the geek flag a-fluttering. Earlier this year, I read CS Lewis‘ Studies in Words, a veritable bonanza for the etymology-enthusiast. I was every bit as pleased as I expected; besides providing ample opportunity to be awed by the Lewis-meister’s erudition, Lewis’s masterful study provided weeks of ‘Did you know that ‘national,’ ‘nature’ and ‘nascent’ are related?’-type talk. These little etymology-bombs aren’t bon mots, and they aren’t conversation-stoppers, but they do provoke the odd raised eyebrow and are quite satisfying to dispense, a kind of verbal largesse, if you please. (Other recent favorites include: ‘You do know that ‘legal,’ ‘ligament’ and ‘religion’ share a common root, right?’) It helps of course, that none of my listeners have ever smacked me upside the head, and have instead, provided gratifying responses along the lines of ‘Really?’
But besides providing the incurable nerd an opportunity to show off in polite company, why does etymology provide such pleasure? Most fundamentally, I think, it is because it suddenly makes me aware of the sometimes-mysterious history of the seemingly utterly familiar. I use words all the time: I read them, I write them, I speak them; I agonize over which ones to use; I perform feats of combinatorics with them. They seem handy, mundane, close at hand. But when the etymology of a word is put forth, I become aware of the metaphor that lurks at its heart, the long passages of time that it wears lightly, of its handling by a host of fellow speakers, writers, readers, all subjecting it to the impress of their idiosyncratic usage. The thickets around that contingent combination of letters clears and I see back to the time of its original application and deployment.
We are swamped by words, all the time. To receive an etymology lesson is to realize the enormous history we all bear lightly, as we go about our daily lives, making contact with loved ones, giving directions, communicating ideas, dispensing instructions, and all of the rest; among our daily chatter, our scribbles and notes, lurks the history of countless revisions, emendations and imaginative coinages. A history that we, with our continued usage of words, rewrite on a daily basis. Perhaps the true pleasure of the etymology lesson is to realize that by indulging in the most mundane of daily acts we partake of a gigantic collective artistic and historical project. That should put a smile on any face.