The request to swap Margaret Ernst’s charming book In a Word put me into a panic. I loved this book and didn’t agree with my former self who had decided to list it on Paperbackswap. But I resolved to be brave, and also to quickly read it through—one more time—before I sent it off.
The flow of language, the roots of words, the vicissitudes of meaning: I find all these fascinating.
The ability to see the secrets behind the letters of words, their nuances, their humble beginnings, is one compelling reason to study a foreign language.
Companion is one of my favorite words. It comes from the Latin com (together) + panis (bread). Thus, a companion is a person you share meals with. I know it. I love it. But I didn’t know that pantry is a place where bread was made or kept.
I could bore you with a list of stuff I learned. I could tell you that mistletoe is from an Old German word for dung, because it was believed that the plant grew from bird droppings. I could go on with the word vogue which means to sail forth and comes from the swaying motion of a ship. Your eyelids could close listening to how calm comes from the Greek, burning heat, and how gossamer literally means goose summer. You could nod off to my voice noticing the relationship between climate, from the Greek word slope, and climax, from the Greek word ladder. Then you would bolt upright in shock when you heard the origin of the word testify, and how the King James Version euphemistically says that an oath is taken by placing the hand on the thigh.
Let’s just stop one minute and focus.
Focus – straight over from the Latin meaning hearth, fireplace. I quote Margaret Ernst: In the days before we became nomads in the apartment-house era, the hearth was the focus of the home and home life. Now, like poor photography, we are out of focus. The word was first used in a mathematical sense in 1604 by Kepler, who likened the focus of a curve to the burning-point of a lens.
Etymologies are not definitions; they’re explanations of what our words meant 600 or 2,000 years ago. Think of it as looking at pictures of your friends’ parents when they were your age. People will continue to use words as they will, finding wider meanings for old words and coining new ones to fit new situations. In fact, this list is a testimony to that process.
One advantage print books have over online resources is that they are easy to browse. This is a perfect, ahem, bathroom book, given you are one that keeps books in bathrooms. Perhaps it is a perfect bedside book, one you can spend a few pages with before sleep. Although this is a fun little book, it is not nearly as extensive as the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.