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.’