MY ANGLE: Why etymology is cooler than you think

Have you stared at a word long enough that it doesn’t seem to make sense anymore? Ever wondered why a word has the meaning it does or silent letters it doesn’t need?

There are actually a few reasons for that: etymology and Noah Webster.

Webster, a famous American lexicographer, created the first standardized English dictionary in 1828, single-handedly changing the spellings of words like “center” and “honor” from the British versions, “centre” and “honour,” revolutionizing the written word.

He had a vision of a phonetic, easy-to-understand language. Not all of his reforms caught on, and some scholars think he was wrong altogether about some changes — Webster also pushed for reforms such as spelling soup as “soop” and tongue as “tung.”

His reforms of English are what make etymology somehow extremely logical and a little ridiculous at the same time.

Etymology, the study of the history or origin of a word, appears at the end of the average dictionary entry for a word. Paying close attention to it can reveal a lot.

Take the word “science,” whose history traces back over centuries and across continents.

It starts with Middle English and Anglo-French “science” and from Latin “scientia” (knowledge, awareness), according to Merriam-Webster’s entry. That traces back to the verb “scio,” to know, which has a tangled history that could be from the European “to cut or flay” and the Sanskrit “to pull off skin.”

That origin calls to mind a dissection or an autopsy — the curiosity of how living beings can exist the way they do. People have been wondering about that question and about science for an extremely long time.

The first recorded use of the word “science,” is in the 1300s when it was a universally understood concept put together from pieces of language all across the globe.

Language doesn’t always work like that, though. Take the word “jumbo,” which Merriam-Webster defines as anything that is “a very large specimen of its kind.” Its origin traces back to one specific elephant: P.T. Barnum’s gigantic one named Jumbo. The word’s first use was around the same time Jumbo was sold from the London Zoo: 1883. Although Jumbo the elephant is long gone, he managed to be influential enough to stay in common usage more than 100 years later.

No matter what word you find, its etymology can tell you a story about how you came to understand it and why. Whether it’s about people hundreds of years ago or about how a certain Twitter meme managed to make its way into the dictionary, etymology is the connecting thread.

Which, everything considered, is really, really cool.

— By Samhita Kumar

Originally published in the March 9 edition of the Octagon.

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