Some words contain entire stories in themselves. Their history is obvious and we are alive to it as we use them. Others are just code pointing to something else, sounds and sign which we use without paying much attention to their own history. An etymological awareness brings us closer to realities lying beyond the sign, the roots of the words we use every day. Most of us love good etymologies, we feel, as we learn the roots of our words, the exhilaration of someone who’s cracked a code or solved a puzzle. Words don’t fall down for the sky or evolve in a Petri dish. They grow like trees, evolving rings of meaning and multiplying their branches with every use, in every generation. We can’t pluck them out, we shake them, and the fruit of their growth fall into our laps, producing the words and their meanings we come to know.
Depending on the language we use, some words may show their roots better than others. In Germanic languages, words formed through nominal composition, like the English monkfish, are more revealing of their roots than others, like cod, whose origin, despite similarities to words meaning ‘bag’, remains unknown. Even monk, whose ancestor was the medieval Latin monachus, doesn’t reveal much of its history to someone who doesn’t know that monachus is a person who lives on their own, from the Greek monos for ‘alone’.
We use language pragmatically, like a tool, without inquiring about the conditions that made a word sound like this rather than another. But perhaps it is worth taking a moment to listen to the stories our words tell, because, ultimately, by using those words, we become those stories.
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