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A little etymology (word origins) for discerning readers

I never look up a word in a dictionary solely for its spelling or pronunciation. I also read about its etymology. Knowing the source and original meaning of a word gives one a sense of linguistic history as well as a deeper understanding of the word's present meaning.

I am not sure when students will be ready for this, but I would try it on them and find out. The earlier the better.

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Many words have an obvious ancestor in an Anglo-Saxon or a Latin word. But some are a surprise. When I became dean of the faculty of a college, I lost no time looking up the word "dean." I found it goes back through Middle English and Old French to the Latin decanus,m the chief of ten, from the Latin decem,m ten. A little poking around in the dictionary gave me the information that in early days a dean (or decanusm ) was head over ten monks in a monastery.

Shortly afterward I was speaking at a large university and was introduced to the dean of the faculty.

"I suppose you know what "dean" originally meant," I said.

"No, I don't."

"It comes from the Latin decem,m and originally meant the chief or head of ten monks." I was pleased at my one-upmanship.

The dean slapped his forehead and blurted out, "Oh, to have only ten to look out for, and to have even one of them a monk!"

By the way, one word can lead to another. I have used "chief" (see also "chef") and "head" above. Both words go back to the Latin caput,m head, but we got "chief" from the Latin via old French, while we derived "head" from a more complicated route of Anglo-Saxon, Dutch, Old Norse, and other Germanic words -- the origin, however, still being the Latin caput.m

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Recently I discovered that I, and many others, have been wrong for years about the call for help used by a ship in distress. I thought it was "May Day," but it has nothing to do with May or day and should be written "mayday," one word with no capitals. It comes from the French m'aider,m help me. Try this on some of your students -- or if your students are too young, on your friends.

I find it of interest, and I think students would also, to become acquainted with some of the many words that are named after a person. Thus we have such words as "watt," the unit of power named after the Scottish inventor James Watt (1736-1819), who also made important improvements in the steam engine that led to the modern locomotive. And there is the camellia, a flower named after Georg Josef Kamel (1661-1706), a Jesuit missionary who first described it.

Most of us would probably like to have our name in the dictionary, in lower case, as the inventor or discoverer of something. But I doubt that a French doctor, Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814), can be very proud of having given his name to "guillotine," that device for beheading condemned prisoners. As a surgeon, he might prefer something more curative and constructive.

The same might be said of such a term as "chauvinist," from Napolean's boastful follower, Nicholas Chauvin, or "quisling," the name for a traitor who serves as a puppet of the enemy occupying his country, a word that came from Vidkun Quisling, head of the State Council of Norway during the German occupation in World War II.

I think it is both educational and fun to learn about the source of words we use. It is another plus for that indispensable book, the dictionary.

Editor's note: Thanks (from Latin "tongere," to know) for the lesson, Professor Armour.m

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