Thursday, September 29, 2016

Words And Their Pedigree

One of the more unusual ways to increase your vocabulary, and acquire a liberal education, too, is to become interested in the origins of words. (Doing this can also help make you a lively conversationalist.) 

Let’s take as an etymological example the word “thug.” You’re familiar with it; you’ve seen it hundreds of times. Now, if you stop to think about it as most people, of course, never have-you might guess that “thug” was originally an underworld slang expression or a disreputable Anglo-Saxon term. Not so. The word comes from Hindustani. “Thugs,” in old India, were members of a fanatical religious sect who robbed wealthy travelers, and then used part of the loot to honor their goddess Kali. The original “thugs” were wiped out long ago, but their name lives on.

There are literally thousands of words that have equally interesting origins. Many of these words are in everyday use, like “thug” or “khaki” (which also comes from Hindustani), and will not be new additions to your vocabulary.
However, by becoming interested in word origins, you are likely to become more interested in words in general. You will never greatly increase your vocabulary unless you are genuinely interested in words.

Word origins, as we pointed out earlier, make fascinating and practical conversation pieces. Take the origin of the word “spoonerism.” A “spoonerism” is the accidental transposing of the first letters of words or phrases. The word comes from the name of the Reverend William A. Spooner (1844-1930), warden of New College, Oxford, a man who had the habit of making such mistakes. When Spooner tried to say “a well oiled bicycle,” for instance, it came out “a well boiled icicle.” “A crushing blow” was “a blushing crow.” One of the classic modern spoonerisms is a misguided radio announcer’s advice to “reach for the breast in bed”--rather than “the best in bread.”

Your dictionary, if it is an unabridged or college edition, will explain the derivations of words. There are also books that discuss words origins in some detail. William Morris’s ‘It's Easy to Increase Your Vocabulary’, now a Dolphin paperback, is one of these.

Now, you may be like the man who swore he “would rather have an inch of dog than a mile of pedigree,” and feel that the meanings of words and not their origins are your main concern, To some extent you are right. However, if you want to increase your vocabulary, you must become interested in words-and learning about word origins is one of the best ways to do it. 
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