Etymologies: Beneath the Dust of Habit

Names, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth’s marvels, beneath the dust of habit. —Salman Rushdie

Ever since my first class with Dr. Wilson Hall, a beginner’s German class in which he would explore rabbit trails of thought into the hidden histories of words and their roots, I have been passionate about etymologies. I was nineteen then. So that’s been at least ten years.

Or thirty.

Some people might think I love etymologies because I’m a nerd. I am a nerd, and proudly so, but that’s not why I’m enamored with etymologies. Other people might think I love etymologies because I’m “supposed to,” as an English major and English teacher, but that’s also not the reason.

Some people may be wondering altogether why I’m studying bees, beetles, flies, grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, and crickets. But that’s entomology, and if we knew that word’s etymology, we’d never confuse these two words, ever.

I first turned to etymologies because I had such a hard time remembering new words. That was when I thought new and unusual long words were SAT-bound nemeses with the personalities of gray hospital surgical rooms and the elusive qualities of greased pigs. Let me just say that a new vocabulary word was not a comforting presence in my brain. Any long word resisted analysis then, like an interminable headache.

Back in high school, I didn’t look up new words, unless a teacher forced me to for a (boring!) vocabulary test. Instead, I gleaned their meanings from their contexts within whatever book I was reading, and I read tons. New words were like very low speed bumps, slowing me down a tad but not much. I just whizzed through all kinds of books—novels, non-fiction, essays, science tomes, textbooks, all found in the paperback exchange carrell in our local library.

But in college my freshman year, many of my teachers required their students to look up words that we didn’t know (in poems, in plays, in essays, in textbooks) and memorize their definitions, for tests of all kinds. It seemed that my teachers were requiring me to digest the lexicons for several disciplines at once: history, English, psychology, religion, biology, and math—such is a freshman year at a liberal arts college.

All of a sudden, looking up countless new words became a major impediment to my reading speed in college as each new word became a half-a-foot-high speed hump.

There were so many unintelligible-to-me new words that I couldn’t keep them all straight in my mind, even though I wrote their definitions down in a notebook. It was like alphabet soup, lots of letters, no meanings.

But while taking Dr. Hall’s German class, I saw that he knew the histories of words, he broke words open every day to share their goodness with us, and I realized as I began to look up these etymologies of words myself that knowing a word’s history invariably cut down on my confusion when learning and retaining new vocabulary.

Yes, this practice cut down on much of my confusion with new vocabulary. Feeling like a fish out of water in Biology 1010, I met entomology. It scared me. Entomology had no mental handle on it until I looked it up in my red Merriam-Webster’s and found in those wonderful lexical brackets (i.e., ["where an etymology lives"]) the information that started helping new words stick to my mind like flies to flypaper or raw tongues to frozen flagpoles.

But something else happened along the way. The practical exercise became a mystical one. Take the rather intimidating word entomology. Sure, we all learned in fourth grade that the suffix -logy means “the study of [something],” but what about the rest of that long word?

Look up entomology and discover with me that this word was coined from the Greek entomon for “insect” and -logy for “study of.” But if we look deeper, we learn that entomos means “having a notch or cut (at the waist),” from en- for “in” and temnein “to cut.”

The amazing polymath Aristotle supposedly used “entomos” to refer to insects in the fourth century B.C., in reference to the segmented division of their bodies. Btw, check out insect, an “(animal) with a notched or divided body,” literally “cut into,” from the Latin insectare “for to cut into, to cut up,” from in- for “into” and secare for “to cut.”

Now, that’s awesome, especially when you realize that section also has that root secare in it for “to cut.” As seen here, we cut oranges into sections.

So, breaking a word open to reveal its etymological mysteries is not unlike breaking open a loaf of bread into the mystery of community around the supper table or of communion in church. Breaking bread together, we realize that we are a small, welcomed, loved, and essential part of a much larger, loving whole. In a not dissimilar fashion, a broken word can reveal to the linguistic seeker the mysteries of cognates (words with common ancestors) and the wonders of words with shared etymologies.

Three decades ago, I became enthusiastic about etymologies, and every day they teach me something and keep me young because there is no way anyone can ever learn all there is to know about words. They are an unending source of joy.

Take the etymology of enthusiasm: “possessed or divinely inspired by God within,” from the en- for “within,” combined with the theos for “God.” That nugget of information is kind of like a Snyder’s Hot Buffalo Wing pretzel piece. Once you’ve had one, the rest of those tangy pieces summon you back.

Therefore, one of my longest-running, favorite hobbies is gathering etymologies. This hobby is very low impact. It costs nothing. You can do it ANYWHERE. And the possibilities are endless! Also, what you collect takes up no space in the physical world, so there are no knick-knacks to dust and to clutter up the house.

Also, collecting etymologies, I am always thrilled and fascinated and kept interested by making fortunate discoveries by accident.

For example, another of my favorite etymologies is the one for serendipity. We all know that “serendipity” means “[t]he faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.” The independent orphan (well, her father is always at sea) Pippi Longstocking is always making wonderful, serendipitous discoveries. I guess if you live with a horse and a monkey, such things happen routinely, so to speak.

But what is the etymology of serendipity? It comes from the pen of the English author Horace Walpole:

In one of [Walpole's] 3,000 or more letters, on which his literary reputation rests, and specifically in a letter of January 28, 1754, Walpole says that “this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.” Perhaps the word itself came to him by serendipity. Walpole formed the world on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of a “silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip; as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”

So, I would say that I am ENTHUSIASTIC about the SERENDIPITOUS pleasures of collecting etymologies.

About Carmen

I teach English at Shorter College in beautiful Rome, Georgia.
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2 Responses to Etymologies: Beneath the Dust of Habit

  1. Tom Pless says:

    One of my favorite experiences in college (a serendipitous one) was the Spring Break when Carmen brought her etymology book along on Awakening tour. I was delighted with the nuggets she shared, and came to love etymology myself.

    In an unintentional way, my mind has always, sine then, been attuned to the roots of words, phrases and idioms. I am always a bit surprised when I find those nuggets popping to the surface as I teach English for Speakers of Other Languages. The context makes our language so much more accessible, and not so rote, to new speakers.

  2. site admin says:

    Tom, this comment does make me smile. Thank you for it. I had forgotten taking my etymology book along on that Awakening! tour, but I do remember now. I also remember Carla’s indefatigable efforts with the sound. You are so right about etymology!

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