The Pleasures of Etymology Lessons

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 LewisStudies 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.

6 thoughts on “The Pleasures of Etymology Lessons

  1. It’s all great stuff. “eavesdropping” is one of my favorites. There are tons of them. I took latin for 3 years, and a lot comes from there, since it’s the birth of the 5 romance languages. I particularly like to learn them in other languages as well, because it tells me more about similar words in English. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “ma donne” in Italian, for My God, it clearly points to that word coming from the latin verb “donare”, or “to give.” That says a lot to me.

    I enjoy understanding the past evolution of a word, but don’t like to watch it happen. I don’t enjoy watching people changing words in the present. Every year new words are added to the dictionary, and I never like that part, for some reason.

    ojala (the j pronounced like an H) means “God willing.” this is a spanish word with clear roots going back to Andalusia.

    We always learn something with words, and learning more than one language is particularly helpful in this regard. It’s a fascinating subject.

    1. JR:

      Tell me more about ‘eavesdropping’! I’d love to take Latin – you know this guy at our gym, Ryan, new kid on the block, he teaches Latin at a school in Brooklyn! (I love the ‘ma donne’ example, btw).

      I hear you on neologisms – sometimes they can seem forced and trendy. Perhaps we need distance from them to come to accept them.

      I’ve learned English, Hindi, Sanskrit and German formally – the connections between Sanskrit and German grammar were revelatory, to say the least. I’d often say that I finally learned Sanskrit grammar then!

  2. Love this post! And yes, I’m tracking with you on the etymology… delicious! You almost make me want to start writing again 😉

  3. I have devised a system of ideograms for English that illustrates Latin and Greek roots. It forces you (me! — I’m the only one using it so far) to focus on and be very concerned with roots. All of the many words with Latin sid,sed, sess (sit) for instance, have the same simple little figure for “sit” in them: session, president, sedentary, sedative, posess, obsessed, sediment, insidious, etc., etc. Very educational and they really stick in your mind. Such a pity that so many people know so little about the syllables that come out of their mouths when speaking English! It is fun to think of what the Romans must have been thinking with many of combinations they made: Inter and esse — between and be — for interesting, permit: through, send, etc. Office: latin oper, work, plus fic, do. I’ve learned English so much more thoroughly! I apply it to other languages too, so it can be a kind of ideographic lingua franca. If interested, let me know at

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