Saturday, September 29, 2012

What's in that word?

Every year, researchers at Merriam-Webster pick about 100 words and phrases to add to the English dictionary. This year, the phrase 'aha moment'--made popular by Oprah Winfrey on her daytime talk show--was among the additions. This took me off guard a bit, but more importantly it got me thinking about the origin and development of the English language.

Now, you would think that, as a writer, a wheeler and dealer in words, Etymology would be part of my tool box, but the truth is that I had to look up the word to confirm the spelling (ashamed face). I realised that I have no idea how the English vocabulary has developed and how certain key words came into being.

With elections in the air, in the US, in Ghana and elsewhere, words like 'Freedom', 'Justice', and 'Independence', came to my mind as words describing concepts that make a difference in our lives. I tried to imagine the first time the word 'independent' was used.

I pictured a caveman crouching at the front of his cave watching a cave-woman walk away from him upright. Obviously exasperated, he remarks to another crouching caveman nearby.

"That woman so ...."

Caveman 1 searches for the right word and caveman 2 fills in "Independent?"

It turns out the first known use of the word 'independent' was between 1605 and 1650, so that scenario probably did not quite play out. It did however underscored the importance of a language that grows to encompass new concepts, attitudes and inventions. In Ghana, the local languages are littered with English words to describe recent developments like computers, email and mobile phones and so on. I may be wrong, but it seems that these languages are not adapting and growing and as a result may become obsolete and die.

The next time I'm searching for just the right word to create the image in my mind, I will probably give a quick thought to the person who included it into our everyday lingo.


Charles Gramlich said...

Since there are plenty of cave men around today, there might have been one in the 1600s when "independent" was created. :)

William Doonan said...

Interesting, Carol. We forget sometimes that almost all words (except for such as thump or meow) are completely arbitrary. Words are invented, then shared, then become part of the lexicon. D'oh - a Homerism, is now an official American English word.

Carol Mitchell said...

Charles, I am going to leave that comment alone :-)

William, it really was a good side trip for me to look into the origin of words. I really have taken it for granted.

John Brantingham said...

Orwell's argument was that when you eliminate words or make their meanings fuzzy, you eliminate our ability to access the ideas that go with them. If "revolution" were gone, we would have no ability to create revolution and when freedom takes on less and less meaning then our freedoms erode with the words.

Liane Spicer said...

Always found etymology fascinating, especially the Greek roots of words we take for granted as 'English', the similarities with words from other European languages, and the incursions of words from languages around the world.

As a former English teacher, the dynamic nature of language can be a pain the rear: this year a word's frowned upon, next year it isn't. This year Creole (Trinidadian) English is not permitted in reported speech, next year it's okay.

And as a writer, switching from UK to US code and back depending on which market I'm writing for can be challenging.

The one thing language never is, though, is boring.

Lauren said...

English is such a mutable language. Linguistics has always been a field that fascinates me. Why did we choose the sounds that we chose to mean what it means? The types of tenses a language can use and the number of words there are to express what another language considers just one word speaks volumes to what is important. Gaelic has 19 words for rain. We don't see this in English, but many languages have femininity and masculinity for words and how people treat the object is morphed by the gender they gave it.

In the comments you said that all words except things like thump and meow are arbitrary. But, it's all arbitrary! Onomatopoeia in our language is not identical to other languages. interesting link to what other languages say a "meow" is:

Skylar said...

It's interesting that the word "independent" is not in recorded use until the 17th century, which shows, I think, a shift in culture that has been impacting us - in both positive and negative ways - ever since. Thanks for the interesitng post.

KeVin K. said...

A truism I found useful when teaching ESL at the community college: "Some languages borrow words from other languages. English mugs other languages in dark alleys and goes through their pockets looking for vocabulary." Once my students grasped this, they took things like our six ways of pronouncing "-ough" in stride. Or at least with humor instead of frustration.

English is a what's known as a living language, it is constantly evolving and changing. For example, an esoteric geometric term for the plane along which two solids intersect is now a verb/noun meaning to communicate or share ideas: interface.

But complex, fluid, and self-contradictory as English is, I remain always grateful we can discuss the patio furniture without worrying about its gender or social status.