Surprising Origins of English Words -
Etymology is the study of the origins of words. Like you and I, words also take birth, grow and travel and eventually settle somewhere. Therefore, tracing their journey is exciting, as they too are alive (in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “cut them and they start to bleed.”). Tracing the origins of English words is even more exciting, given the language’s ability to absorb from different cultures. For instance, as Salman Rushdie shows in his essay Hobson-Jobson, English mingled with Indian languages to create an entirely new vocabulary for Anglo-India. It has done the same with many other cultures.
This habit of borrowing words has made English richer and more accessible to different societies. English took words from almost everywhere — shampoo from India, chaparral from Basques, caucus from the Algonquin Indians, ketchup from China, potato from Haiti, sofa from Arabia, boondocks from the Tagalog language of the Phillipines, slogan from Gaelic. English people have been everywhere, and so, they have picked words from everywhere.
Sometimes the route these words take is highly circuitous. Bill Bryson talks about it in his book Mother Tongue:
Many Greek words became Latin words, which became French words, which became English words.Garbage, which has had its present meaning of food waste since the Middle Ages, was brought to England by the Normans, who had adapted it from an Italian dialectal word, garbuzo, which in turn had been taken from the Old Italian garbuglio (a mess), which ultimately had come from the Latin bullire (to boil or bubble).
How words travel
Every word has a story of its own to tell. And the story is never over — the word keeps travelling, being in a constant state of departure, yet never arriving.
Sometimes a word travels through different cultures and comes to English at different times in history. Therefore, the same word exists in different forms and meanings. For example, take a look at these words.
- canal and channel
- regard and reward
- poor and pauper
- catch and chase
- cave and cage
- amiable and amicable
- cattle, chattel and capital
- hotel, hostel and hospital
- strait, straight and strict
- jaunty, gentle, gentile and genteel
All the above mentioned pairs (or triplets or quadruplet) once had the same root word, but because of the separate paths taken during the journey, they found new meanings.
Some of the journeys are mind-boggling. Consider the word Priya from Sanskrit. It means beloved, friend, dear, etc. Also, it’s common for a Sanskrit P to become European F, as pitr becomes father. Now, the same happened with the word Priya. It travelled from East to West, evolved in the process, and became the source of the words like friend and freedom.
Words find all sorts of ways to reach us. They come from errors, mispronunciations, misspellings, from here and there, everywhere. It won’t be entirely implausible to say that perhaps they too enjoy spending time with us as we do with them.
Originally published at https://kalampedia.org on May 4, 2022.