A Word Nerd, A New Blog, and The Living Language



I hate it, they’d say.  It’s so confusing, and all the rules have exceptions.

On the second or third day of English comp, I asked my students to pull out their softcover dictionaries.  They unhooked the backpacks from their chairs, or hefted them up from the floor, and they pulled the American Heritage volumes from the welter of supplies within. They fwapped them onto the tables in front of them…and they looked at me with eyes that did not shine.

Oh joy, I read on their faces.  Tonight we’ll be looking things up in the dictionary.

We weren’t looking for pronunciation, parts of speech, or various meanings, however. That class, we were trying to find out why English was so darned challenging, so irregular,–often, so hard to spell.

So they looked up ‘sight’ and found it came from the Old English sihth, meaning ‘something seen.’  Back then, all those consonants meant something, too–were pronounced in common speech; the meaning travelled through time with the word, but the guttural sounds were lost.

We looked up ‘site’ and found it came from the Latin ‘situs,’ meaning ‘position.’  The tail end of that word got lost over the ages.

And we looked up ‘cite’ and followed its circuitous path backwards, from Middle English back to Old English back to its original Latin roots.  Back then, probably, the ‘c’ was hard, rather than sibilant, but time and accent mashed that word, as it mashed site and sight, and now we pick from a platter of words that all sound the same–but you choose your spelling and meaning.

They started to get a little interested, those students.  One might say, Well, what about might and mite then?  Yeah, another might add, how about kid meaning a child and kid meaning a goat?  Are those from different languages?

My English teacher’s heart would swell with joy. Look them up, I’d say.  Look them up.  Who can find a word with French roots?  Give me a word that comes from the Greek.  What are the roots of shish kebab?

And for a while we would play with the language, putting words under lenses, poking at them with toothpicks, looking for the molecules, the atoms, the fiber that creates them.  Words are born somewhere, but just like people, they are changed by their travels and experiences.

We’d talk, too, about how words can be different from area to area in a same-language country, how the same word can mean different things in different places.  So ‘sack’ can mean to terminate an employee, it can be a slang term for the place one sleeps, or it can be a thing in which one puts groceries.

We took a poll: are those sweet fizzy drinks pop, or are they soda?

The students would have funny stories about traveling somewhere and being misunderstood because their home term meant something else entirely in the new place.

And then I’d ask then about words that have come into the language within their lifetimes, or words whose meanings have changed within their lifetimes.  If their great-grandmas had been asked, as children, “Is that a mouse next to that tablet?” it would have conjured up an entirely different mental picture than the same question posed today. They would come up with examples of new words and changed words, and then we’d speculate…will our truncated Twitterings someday be standard English?

I always loved teaching that session, when we opened up the language and saw its beating heart, realized (for me, anew, every time) that it wasn’t just an ornery, stuffy, old carcass to be studied, but a living, breathing, growing entity–one that was challenging, funny, twisted, slippery, and fascinating.

I was reminded of that last night when I found John Kelly’s blog, The Mashed Radish: everyday etymologies (mashedradish.com).  Kelly plucks a word out of the news or popular media and explores its roots, and the exploration is not only fascinating historically but revealing in terms of the modern incident.  I commented, a grateful word nerd, on Kelly’s post tracing–a la Donald Trump–the word ‘hormone.’  Kelly responded that he thinks exploring etymologies “..gives us just a little deeper insight or different way of thinking about the news of the day.”

I love that concept.  I clicked ‘follow.’


15 thoughts on “A Word Nerd, A New Blog, and The Living Language

  1. Hi Pam!
    Have you ever studied Chinese? It’s so interesting, a language that evolved from pictures rather than phonemes. Homonyms exist in Chinese, too, and we clarify by putting words in context, such as “bei(1) guan(1) de bei(1)”, literally “morose’s ‘bei'”, as opposed to “cha(2) bei(1) de bei(1)”–“tea cup’s ‘bei'”. The numbers in parentheses denote the tone of the word, because that changes the meaning of the word, too.
    Chinese names are like Native American names–they are everyday words with meanings. So when you tell someone your name, you have to ‘spell’ it out by telling them what words your name is. My name is Cheng Chia-Yi.
    Cheng (“Zheng” in pin-yin): Cheng(4) Ch’eng(2) Gong(1) de Cheng(4)–Cheng it the name of a famous general in Taiwan to fought Danish rule.
    Chia (“Jia”): Jia(1) ting(2) de jia(1): The jia that means family, or home
    Yi (“Ee”): “Ru(2) yi(4) de yi(4) with a grass radical at the top. The yi that means meaning or wish, with an additional pictoral particle that changes the word to a lesser known word meaning seed.
    Anyway, thought that might interest you. 🙂
    Thanks for the word nerdery–I appreciate it. 🙂

    1. Cathy–This is fascinating. I’m going to look for a ‘Chinese For Idiots’ type book that will explain more in a very rudimentary way. (Any suggestions are very welcome!) A long-term educator, I often advised students with disabilities in college settings along the way; one of the biggest challenges for students with certain learning challenges was succeeding in a foreign language class. I wonder if studying a language like Chinese, rooted as it is in pictures, might not open doorways for visual thinkers like my autistic son? Thank you for this response; it’s a wonderful catalyst….

  2. This was so interesting! What a gift you have to teach.
    I love to go back to the original words, either the Hebrew (Old Testament) or Greek (New Testament) in my Bible studies. Now I’ll want to do it when I read blogs! Lol

    1. I like the idea of Bible study involving a search for the roots of words…makes a great deal of sense! I’m afraid I could get so stuck on looking for etymologies in everyday reading that I never make it past Word Two. But it’s such fun…

      1. I just wrote a blog on how we became minimalists. My he hardest things for me to give up were my books….and one was huge and heavy, Strong’s Concordance. Ugh, now I really miss it. But seems like everything is on-line…

      2. One of those things that the translators don’t tell us about their versions of the Bible is how often the translations are traditional, rather than actual. I saw an article recently where someone said the Leviticus verse that is usually translated to say a man lying with a man is an abomination was mistranslated; the author argued that the ancient Hebrew words in the verse were not the same in both places and one of them meant priest, as in pagan priests who often got up to that sort of thing as part of their religious rituals. So, if she (the article writer) is correct, the abomination was having relations with a pagan priest, which fits in pretty well with the whole “I am a jealous god and you shall have not others before me” thing. And that is just on the basis of one word! There are entire books written about how this or that passage is to be understood on the basis of how a given author believes the words mean something they would like it to mean. As ancient Hebrew had no vowels and the consonants were also numbers and punctuation was often lacking, translations become a matter of guesswork and tradition to a certain degree.

  3. wordscoffeeandlacedresses

    I do enjoy reading your posts, Sarah 🙂 That is why I have nominated you for the Premio Dardas Award 😀 Check it out on my blog

      1. wordscoffeeandlacedresses

        You are very welcome! You have a great blog which deserves every form of recognition 😀

  4. For reasons unknown, the Like buttons are not working for me on the desktop, so I will have to just say here in the comments how much I enjoyed this post. THANK YOU for telling us about this. Your love for the language and for teaching it comes through very clearly here. And I just followed mashedradish.com on your recommendation alone, something I have not done before. Have a great and pleasant school year, Kind Teacher. I wish I were able to sit in your class.

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