Etymology Two

In another life I was an etymologist. I’m sure of it.  That’s not the bug person.  An etymologist is a person who studies the origins of words, a kind of linguist.

Our own Kate Carlisle wrote a post in 2012 called “Stoopid Words” and she’s right: English words are not only confusing and complicated, sometimes they’re just plain dumb, especially in regard to spelling.

sophomoricNonetheless, I’m terribly fascinated with how words come into the general lexicon.  Every Monday of my teaching career, I gave my students a list of twenty new vocabulary words.  If I didn’t know a story about the origin of a word, I’d make one up.  I know, less than honest, but come on, they were sophomores.  And you KNOW why we call tenth-graders sophomoric.

One particularly favorite word was “flippant.”  Of course, silly adolescents manage to make the mildest word something giggly and ridiculous.  So I went with that.  I told them that’s where we got the expression “flipping the bird,” because that’s the most disrespectful thing you can do to another person, and of course, one meaning of “flippant” is showing extreme disrespect. flippant dog

Language is a powerful tool, and making up words or new meanings to existing words is cool.  Remember when “foxy” only meant crafty, clever, not sexy.  But how apt is it that some clever person decided foxy would be a great adjective for a hot-looking guy or gal.

In Bandita Kate’s post she commented on the very big difference in meaning between

Beowulf, Old English“I knead bread” and “I need bread.”  I’m not telling on Kate when I point out that “knead” need not be necessary in her personal lexicon unless her husband is giving her a much needed back rub.

I’m always interested in the WHY.  Why complicate the language with “knead” and “need,” two homonyms when we could just drop the damned “k”?

Well, there’s a reason, it turns out.  Back in the day – Old English and Middle English – with their roots in Germanic languages, the “k” was NOT silent!  Go figure.  Thus Chaucer’s “knead” would be pronounced “kuh-need” as would “kuh-nif” and “kuh-night.”

As would the letter “g” in some cases, like that pesky insect, the “guh-nat.”  It’s all too much for my pretty little head, but doesn’t it sound hilarious and terribly interesting?

Geoffrey_Chaucer_(17th_century)So, my question to our readers is:  What’s your favorite word?  Why?  What images does it conjure up for you?  Why?  What words do you find the most troublesome to say, spelling, or even remember? Can you make up a word to add to our Bandita lexicon?

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  • Jane says:

    Hello Jo,
    I have to admit that some of my favorite words are cuss words, but another favorite is astonishing. It feels like an exciting and uplifting word to me. It took me a while before I figured out the right way to pronounce quinoa and acai and I sometimes have a hard time saying subtlety.

    • Caren Crane says:

      Jane, most of our English cuss words are from Old English, which I find incredibly funny! I hope you don’t let the GR suggest any “new words” today. His are always very offensive and usually include a “bwok!”

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Yes! I get that, Jane. Even the word itself looks astonished LOL.

      Cuss words are delightful because they change from one generation to the next, and used sparingly, have such a profound effect.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Funny you should mention quinoa, Jane. I just learned to pronounce it recently and have only eaten it once. It’s not a word easily sounded out from its look, is it?

  • Amy Conley says:

    My favorite word woould be “grandchild/ren” for obvious reasons. 🙂

    Any word where the letter ‘x’ is the second letter, such as exsist, I can NOT pronounce correctly. You can ask my best friend, she’s been trying for 40 years to get me to sound out the ‘x’ in any word, doesn’t happen.

    My Mother was VERY strict about the way we spoke (and wrote), so we called her the “English Professor”. As my own children grew up I became the “English Professor”. But one off the things my mother taught us the same time she was teaching us proper english was this little saying, “People will determine your intelligence by the way you speak, regardless of how much education level.” And boy is that ever true, specially for me.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      That’s so true, Amy. But I remember a college professor who was very correct and precise in his language, accent, and diction saying that when he visited his relatives in the small coal-mining town where he grew up, he slipped into the dialect they used because otherwise he would’ve sounded stuffy and arrogant.

      I always liked that idea.

      • Amy Conley says:

        My children do that also. I married into a family were my mil barely finished 8th grade and my fil was raised in the mountians of Eastern Kentucky and not the best english, so hubby doesn’t sspeak well either. But boy of boy does he get mad when I correct him! This area of Southern Indiana doesn’t seem to really care. My daughter’s senior year english teacher was also the football coach, so he really didn’t care and he even taught them saying the word “at”, at the end of sentence was just fine. Needless to say this is one of maajor pet peeves and I would have loved to punch him for telling my daughter it was fine to say when at home if she said it, she was instantly corrected and then given a speech.

  • ki pha says:

    Oh man, I have trouble spelling lots of words but the word that always gave me trouble is “necessary”. I can never figure out if it’s the ‘c’ or the ‘s’ that comes first or whatever but that still gives me pause whenever I have to write it. And yet I can spell conscience perfectly when it doesn’t even sound like how it’s spelt. LOL

    But my favorite word, I don’t remember which is my favorite word. I can’t think of it! It’s at the tip of my tongue but I can’t seem to recall it. All I know is that it was a fun word to say.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Hilarious, Ki Pha. I always had to pause whenever I wrote “conscience” and “conscious” until I forced myself to remember that “conscience” was all about science. That trick helped me.

      But necessary is awful. It should be spelled with an “s” instead of that dratted “c.” I want to say NECK-a-sary! :-))

  • Helen says:


    I often have trouble spelling I have never been the best of spellers LOL and I am not sure that I have a favorite word and one word that I always have trouble saying and speling is statistics and I have nor reason why LOL

    Have Fun

    • Jo Robertson says:

      I’ve known a lot of people who stumble over “statistics,” Helen. I think it’s because they want to pronounce it with an extra “s,” like
      stuh-STISS-ticks instead of stuh-TISS-ticks.

  • Mary Preston says:

    I spell by sight. I guess that comes from being a reader. If a word I write does not look right, I know I have misspelled it.

    I don’t have a favourite word. Though sometimes I will hear or read a word that tickles my fancy.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Yes, Mary, spelling is a visual memory thing. The universal trouble with that is that as you get older and your memory fails, you forget how to spell! So not fair. Sometimes I find myself forgetting the simplest of words that I would never forget before.

  • Shannon says:

    I think one of the words that is not one of my favorites, but it reflects how usage changes a word. Awesome was about reverence and a mix of fear/adoration when it came into usage in the 1600s. Today, it’s slang for very impressive.

    The other thing that fascinates me is that English picks one word to do all kinds of things. There love; the Greeks had like three terms–storge, agape, and eros.

    My made up word is derived from your cloud–scategorized, meaning stuff that get categorized quickly with only a passing attention to real meaning, i.e. some of the tagging in one of our work databases.

    • Caren Crane says:

      Shannon, I love scategorized!

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Kewl, Shannon! I love scategorized! It’s perfect.

      I agree that the word “awesome” is irritating used as slang. It so, like, you know, adolescent.

      I love that the Greeks had three meanings for love. Our “love” is so varied. Do you love your partner or do you love chocolate cake. So not the same thing!

  • Caren Crane says:

    Jo, I love etymology, too! My favorite word changes all the time, but here are a few I have enjoyed: impecunious; sesquicentennial; autumnal (like the weather today!); incessant; surcease; loggia (yes, I have watched A Room With a View too many times!); inchoate.

    Lots more where these came from, too. I love language!

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Now, see how smart you are, Caren! I had to look of loggia. I thought it was like the mezzanine of balcony of a interior building.

      How do you pronounce autumnal? aw-TUM-nal or AW-tum-nal? I’ve heard it both ways and wondered if it’s a regional thing.

      • Caren Crane says:

        Definitely aw-TUM-nal, Jo. I’ve always lived in the South, so that’s the only way I’ve ever heard it pronounced. AW-tum-nal would sound British to me! It probably is regional, like so many things.

        For instance, CARAMEL. To me, this is clearly THREE SYLLABLES. It’s not “CAR-mul” like so many people say. It’s CARE-uh-mul. Every time I even hear “CAR-mul” it makes me want to slap somebody! Don’t even get me started on the pronunciation of pecan. 😀

        • Jo Robertson says:

          I was raised in the south, too, Caren, but pronounced the word AW-tum-nal. When I went to college in the west and heard it pronounced differently, I didn’t know what to think of that!

  • Sally Schmidt says:

    I remember a time when my husband and I were young and one of us said something about fritter” as in “fritter away your time” and for some reason we thought that was hilarious and would dissolve into laughter every time one of us used the word. And sometimes it seems that if you use a small, common word too many times in a short period it stops sounding like a real word – to me at least. Oh well. Favorite word: Cootie, because all my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are cootie bugs. Non-word that used to give me the most trouble: irregardless. It only took one time to be correct at work to never use that again.

  • AHA! I knew it!! I knew you were supposed to pronounce those k’s and g’s!!! When I was a kid I went around pronouncing them, along with the w in sword. Drove my mom C-R-A-Z-Y!

    Mom: “Suzy, those letters are silent.”
    Me: “But Mom I have to say them out loud.”
    Mom: “Why?”
    Me: “Because I’ll forget to put them in when I have to spell them!!”

    Look who was logically right!?!?!


    • Jo Robertson says:

      Of course, perfect logic, Suzanne! We can thank the printing press for cementing those silent letters forever; otherwise, I think we’d have dropped them in spelling, as they make no logical sense today.

  • EC Spurlock says:

    Yes, words can be confusing! As a former copy editor it drives me crazy that lately people have started using “lead” when they mean “led”. It’s as if they’re pronouncing it like the metal but the meaning is past tense of “lead” so for the reader they’re essentially changing tense in the middle of the sentence. It’s even more surprising that their editors are not picking up on this!

    One word I always have trouble with is “recommend” – I always forget how many c’s and how many m’s it should have.

    I learned a lot of fun words in Medieval Studies, many of which did not deserve to fall out of use. “Dretch” is a great favorite of mine, meaning to annoy or irritate someone. I think the sound of it reflects the meaning very well. I also like “eyethurl”, an old word for window. And I recently discovered that the French word for theatrical makeup is still “fard”, derived from “fardry”, a Medieval word for the type of white, mask-like makeup used in Elizabethan times both as theatrical makeup and wrinkle-covering makeup for noblewomen (which is why Queen Elizabeth I looks so weird in her later portraits.)

    I love obsolete words and often use them as names for incidental background characters.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      How fascinating, EC. I didn’t know any of those medieval words. Dretch is great! I’m surprised we don’t see it more often in historical romances. It does appear more to be a noun than a verb, so I wonder if some silly young editor edited it out of a m/s?

      Yes, lead and led are annoying homophones and I find myself having to pause a moment to think before I avoid the “faster than a speeding bullet” one.

  • Mozette says:

    One of the main reasons why I love words is because they’re the great communicator.

    We write poetry, stories, love letters… we scare people with words verbally by being threatening, endearing and challenging. And Shakespeare was the best at it by writing tragedies and showing the world emotions through words – and showing them through plays.

    So, words are a thing of beauty for me – no matter if they’re on a computer screen or whether I’m writing them on a canvas with a painter’s brush (that latter I’ve done!).

    My favourite word is: ‘Shazbuck’ – from Mork and Mindy… for obvious reasons, it’s a weird, unusual word meaning: ‘oh darn it, I screwed up.’ It sounds better if you lisp in the middle of it and more authentic too. 😀

    My least favourite word is: moist…

    but then, I don’t think anyone likes that word.

    There are words out there that have been removed from the Oxford English Dictionary for no good reason… they’re not obsolete, they’ve just fallen out of fashion to use right now, and that’s just silly and and narrow-minded.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Thanks for sharing those lovely thoughts, Mozette. I can just hear Mork saying Shazbuck!

      What I find interesting is the slang usage shifts from generation to generation. Like “fag” was British slang for a cigarette years ago and has become a pejorative word now.

      • Mozette says:

        Along the lines of “fag” is the word ‘faggot’ which used to mean: a tied collection of twigs or sticks. And now, it’s a horrible meaning to be homosexual in the slang spoken way.

        I was once helping cleaning up around my unit complex and had tied up a bunch of sticks to be picked up, putting them off to one side. A younger generation asked if anything needed taking away, I turned and said, “Yeah, that faggot of sticks.” the kid burst out laughing at me while I stood there seriously pointing to the bundle of sticks saying, “Before your time, faggot meant that… so pick them up.”
        he stopped laughing a little bit and walked off to the trailer waiting nearby to where an older generation guy was standing and told him what I said, and the guy said that is what the bundle of sticks is called – a faggot, and it’s an old saying, and that he should learn more about what he’s saying instead of blurting out what he thinks he knows; which is nothing.

        So, the next time somebody called me a faggot – or anyone for that matter – I was/am very quick to say, “What? I’m a bundle of sticks?” shuts them up very quickly and turns the whole meaning around on them to make them the fool.

  • Jo Robertson says:

    Quick question for our readers: Do you say the word “machination” with a hard MOCK-uh-nay-shun or MASH-uh-nay-shun?

    I wondered (and am too lazy to look it up VBG) because I believe it derives from the literary term “deus ex machina,” which literally means god from a machine, and is used in drama or literature when the plot gets so complicated that an artificial plot device has to be used to extricate the characters — often “and then she woke up, it was all a dream.”

    The ancient Greeks actually had a “god” come up from the trap door in the floor of the stage to fix the problem.

    I ask because in that phrase we say DAY-us ex muh-KNOCK-uh-nuh.

    Anyone know?

  • I say the hard MOCK for exactly the reason you delineated.

    I am a devout WORD NERD.

    I love words. I collect words. I have little journals where I jot down new words I learn.

    Having studied a number of foreign languages I enjoy finding the link between languages.

    Things like the word potato in English is kartoffle (This is an approximation as my computer doesn’t have cyrillic characters.) The words have the same tone and rhythm.

    Being a musician the tone and rhythm of words is another source of fascination for me.

    One of my favorite words? Amazement.

  • Jo Robertson says:

    That’s what I thought, Louisa. Clearly, I’m fascinated with words and their origins too!

  • catslady says:

    I like the word penultimate – just think it’s neat to have a word that means next to last lol. Our family uses the word “strategery” ever since a certain president used it – makes us laugh every time. I use to be a great speller but with spell check and old age…