Becoming Interested in the Origin of Words

Words, like facts, are difficult to remember out of context.  Remembering is greatly facilitated when you have a body of information with which to associate either a word or a fact.  For words, interesting origins or histories will help provide a context.  For example, a hippopotamus is a "river horse," from the Greek hippos, meaning "horse," and potamos, meaning "river."

Indiana is called the Hoosier state, and its people Hoosiers.  Why?  In the early days, the pioneers were gruff in manner; when someone knocked at the front door, a pioneer's voice would often boom, "Who's yere?"

If you were offered a Hobson's choice, would you know what was meant?  Thomas Hobson owned a livery stable in seventeenth-century England.  He loved his horses, and to prevent any one horse from being overworked, he hired them out in turn, beginning with stall number one.  Customers had to take the horses they were given.  Thus Hobson's choice means no choice at all. (Pauk, p. 314)

Etymology is the study of the origins of words.  The English language is living and growing.  Although many of our words have been part of our language for many years, new words are added all the time.  Following are various ways our language is influenced.

  • Derived from Foreign Words - English, in many cases, has been commonly expanded by incorporating foreign words into it.  Most of our language has ancient Anglo-Saxon or Latin origins.  Other languages have also added to our vocabularies.

  • Additions through Technology & Products - Our words often reflect current interests, trends, and innovations.  One of the most recent contributors to our language has been computer technology, which has created words such as bytes, monitor, and disk.

    Another way new words come into our language is through the development of products.  Some examples include: Kleenex, Walkman, Scotch tape, Xerox, and Linoleum.

  • People's Names - sometimes when a person invents or introduces something, that thing becomes associated with the person's name.  The person, through time, is forgotten while the name lives on in our language.  Examples include:

    • mesmerize - F.A. Mesmer, an Austrian doctor and hypnotist.
    • sideburns - an American English alteration of burnsides, Ambrose E. Burnside, a Union general.
  • Words from Letters - The initials for the names of things may actually come to replace the names.  The initials become the words that represent the thing, concept, or group.  The following are examples of words that have developed from initials.

    • TV - TeleVision
    • DWI - Driving While Intoxicated
    • COD - Cash On Delivery
    • ZIP - Zone Improvement Plan
  • Word Histories - Some words also have interesting histories.  Learning the stories behind the meanings is a good way to learn those words.  The following examples will give you an idea of how history can affect language.

    • footman - It was once thought to bring bad luck if a person stepped on the door threshold when entering a house.  Rich people hired a servant to stand at their doors.  His job was to guard against a guest's stepping on the threshold.  The guard became known as a footman.
    • hooker - A synonym for prostitute.  The term became popular during the Civil War.  The women involved were camp followers.  General "Fighting Joe" Hooker approved their presence in order to boost the morale of his men.