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Monday, February 22, 2010

Wonderful History of Words: Introduction

Words are more than mere "names for things, places or actions" or letters strung together and put on paper. There is a hidden magic in words: how they are used and where they came from. Behind the words are fascinating, undiscovered histories. The "Wonderful History of Words" is a place where we will dig for the buried treasures and uncover those histories.

Language is not static... it is living, changing, and evolving. There are words in our language that did not exist forty years ago. I challenge you to look in a dictionary dated in the sixties and find terms such as "software," "modem," indeed, any words dealing with computers. The word "computer" itself, has changed in meaning from "an apparatus for carrying out mathematical operations by mechanical or electrical means or both" (1962, The American College Dictionary) to "an electrical machine that performs high-speed mathematical or logical calculations or that assembles, stores, correlates or otherwise processes and prints information derived from coded data in accordance with a predetermined program (1980, The American Heritage Dictionary) to "a programmable usually electronic device that can store, retrieve, and process data" (Merriam-Webster, online, 2010). Even the 1980 edition does not have an entry for "home computer."

Other differences are apparent as well in a comparison with older dictionaries. For example, a perusal of the word "pot" in the 1962 dictionary reveals many definitions: an earthen container, liquor or drink, a wicker vessel used to trap fish, a chimney pot, a large sum of money, a liquid measure, to preserve food in a pot, to shoot game birds or animals at rest, to capture. By 1980, included with the above definitions was "slang for marijuana."

The question, "Where on earth did THAT phrase or THAT word come from?" is enough to send me scurrying for the nearest dictionary. Discovering the origins of different words and phrases open up new worlds; worlds in which words had meanings that are lost in the annals of time.

For example, take the word "leasing." Today we know it as the present participle of the verb "to lease," which comes from the Middle English les, which came from the Norman French lesser, which means "to lease," which in turn came from the Old French laissier, to let go or leave. However, there is another, more obscure meaning to the world "leasing." It too came from the Middle English, only from le(e)sing which came from the Old English word leas, which means "to lie." Therefore, "leasing" is also an archaic noun which means a lie, or the act of lying; a falsehood. Quite a different meaning. Information such as this is invaluable to the writer wanting to flavor his writing with language suitable for the time period in which he writes.

Enjoy our occasional essays on the wonder of words as we look at many different aspects of language: the history of language as a whole, the origins of specific words and phrases, archaic terms for various time periods, and discussions of general interest about usage.

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