Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On the Wonder of Words

I've had a life-long fascination with words; with their sounds, with their origins, with their meanings. It amazes me how few people ever take even a moment to think about the wonder of words. To do so can add new layers of appreciation and delight to life.

I owe my love of words to my mother, with whom, as a very young child, I would play a game we called "Dictionary." We would sit with the dictionary, taking turns opening it to random pages, then closing our eyes and putting our index finger on the page. The other would try to identify and define the word the finger pointed to.

I am delighted by words which are, in effect, their own definition. Some are so elementary as to be fascinating when you stop to realize it: "fly," for example. A "fly" is what it is, and "fly" is what it does.

Seeking the background of words can, however, be a trap, in that you set out in one direction and find yourself wandering off in another. The word "butterfly," for example, is a spoonerism for what a butterfly "flutters by," and spoonerism—a verbal error in which a speaker accidentally transposes the initial sounds or letters of two or more words—is one of those words the definition of which is derived from the person with whom it is associated, in this case a 19th century scholar named W.A. Spooner, famous for garbling his words. The word for a certain form of facial hair, sideburns, derived its name from civil war General Ambrose Burnside, who wore them. And the word "hooker" derives from another Civil War general, Joseph Hooker. Large numbers of women, many of them prostitutes, traveled with his troops, and thus became known as "hookers." (See what I mean about the ease of getting distracted?)

A great many two-and-three syllable words contain their definition in the individual words of which they are comprised, and while not one person in a thousand considers doing so, looking at them as separate words gives a new appreciation for them and their meaning: lawnmower, blackberry, blueberry, foghorn, battleship, gravedigger, peacemaker, handkerchief, timekeeper, scorekeeper, pastime, bartender, nightclub.

Many of the words we use have foreign roots which are self-descriptive in their original language:
parasol ("for sun"), mayday (mispronunciation of "m'aidez: help me").

The self-definition of some common words are archaic and thus less obvious than others: breakfast (refers to breaking the fast between dinner and dawn), landlord (from the time when titled "lords" owned large amounts of land and had control over the people who lived on them).

The three primary American sports are self-descriptive, of course: basketball, baseball, football.

I'm particularly intrigued with words whose pronunciation has evolved to the point where it totally obscures the word's true meaning or origins. The despised racial epithet, "the N-word," is in fact an almost logical result of the historically-acceptable word "Negro." But through casual repetition and/or rapid pronunciation, it morphs into the "N-word."

Those of you who have followed my blogs for some time are already aware that when it comes to mispronunciation totally hijacking the meaning of a word, my personal cause célèbre (literally, "famous case") is "President," and I have dragged out my soapbox innumerable times to point out that the correct pronunciation...and the true meaning...of the word is "pre-ZI-dent": one who presides. Yet I'd bet that 9,999 out of 10,000 have never made this connection. So, as with so many things in life, I fight my own little battles and, as with so many of my little battles, lose them—though I have fun doing so.

A common philosophical question is "if you were stranded on a desert island, and could take only one book, which would it be?" For me, the answer is simple: "a dictionary."

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to check out his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs ( ).

1 comment:

Kage Alan said...

I can't say I much look at the history behind words, but I do love playing with them; i.e. wordplay. Dialogue in particular is ripe for wordplay provided you have a character who's up to the challenge and knows what he/she is doing.

Texting has created a whole new world of wondrous flubs and wordplay. Received a text from the hubby last night that said "Mom keeps tinking the card is going to expire."

My response? "Then tell her to stop tinking about it." Problem solved.