We are inundated by thousands of words thousands of times a day. We take them for granted; we misuse them (“your” “you’re”). They evolve almost yearly: some go out of fashion, others come in, spellings change. Without words we could never have become the advanced space-journeying species we are today.
Which is why I find it astonishing that the majority of the population consider learning about the roots of words (etymology) as exciting as the proverbial paint drying. I, personally, find etymology absolutely fascinating. Below are a few writer relevant samples (taken from “Picturesque Word Origins from Webster’s New International Dictionary”, 1933):
- Alphabet – Just as we refer to our A B C’s, using the first three letters to mean the complete list, as a whole, so the Greeks used alpha and beta, their names for ‘a’ and ‘b’, the first two letters. The combination of these two, alpha + beta, is the origin of the English word alphabet.
- Magazine – the word by which we designate a pamphlet published periodically containing stories, articles, and the like, goes back for its origin to an Arabic word makhzan, meaning a ‘storehouse’, ‘granary’, or ‘cellar’. Arabic makhzan was borrowed by Spanish as magacen, and this by French as magasin, English magazine, meaning first “storehouse or depot,” especially for military stores. Then the sense was extended to a “storehouse of information,” originally in the form of a book, but now any periodical publication.
- Pencil – The Latin penicillus, meaning ‘a little tail,’ is the ancestor of our word pencil. The term pencil was first applied to a brush of hair or bristles used by artists and suggestive, in its form, of the ‘little tail’ from which it was named. Later, the word took on its present common meaning. Pen is derived from Latin penna, meaning ‘feather’. This is natural enough, because the first pens were feathers or quills. When the quill pen gave way to the modern instrument of steel or gold the name remained to remind us of a custom of earlier days.
- Slogan – Among the Highland clans of Scotland the war cry, or gathering word, was called sluagh-ghairm, a Gaelic term formed from sluagh, “army,” and gairm, “a call.” The English form slogan took on the meaning “any rallying or battle cry” and in modern use has come to be applied to business mottoes far from its original warlike significance.
- Volume – In ancient times when papyrus was prepared for writing, the separate pieces were pasted or glued together in one long sheet usually from five to eight inches wide, and then rolled up on a short rod. As work was written, and later read, it was gradually unrolled from one staff and at the same time rolled up again on another. The Latin word for such a written document was volumen, “a roll” of writing, derived from volvere, “to roll.” This was borrowed in French as volume, and this borrowed, in turn, in English. The word has kept pace with improvements in the materials and form of books, and volume now means paper cut in sheets, folded and sewed, and usually with a pair of stiff cover boards to preserve it.
Interestingly, I noticed a few word modifications in the book itself. Dating from only 79 years ago, the spelled today ‘to-day’ and zoology [correctly due to the double ‘o’] zoölogy. And now we use Google as a verb. Words they are a-changin’!