Origins of Words

(clues to the origin and development of the English language)

A Short History of the Origins of Our Modern Languages

Clues may be traced from mankind's earliest days through the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome and into the modern period, where, with the piling up of new discoveries in the arts, technologies, and sciences, the invention of new words has become almost commonplace.

Every word we use has a history, and in almost every case it is a story of action, a story of something that happened.

Word-forming activities have been going on for thousands of years, ever since the first human beings uttered the first human sounds and we have inherited a rich legacy from those historical times.

Sound and Sense

Many of our most stirring impressions come to us by way of elementary speech sounds. Conclusive proof of this statement can be found in a radio script that depends for dramatic effect not only on words but also on other sounds; such as, closing doors, tramping feet, rippling water, howling wind, ticking clocks, crashing collisions, and no end of other noise factors.

  • The use of sounds for communication is as old as mankinds's existence.
  • Early humans got along with a small stock of words, and they probably started with sound effects.
  • When telling about violence; such as, shattering or breaking, they probably made noises with smashing sounds, which in time became such dictionary words as smash, dash, bash, mash, clash, and crash.
  • It is easy to add a list of additional words ending in -sh, meaning something to do with violence.
  • Words from Greek

  • The classic tongue of Greece (the language of Homer, Plato, and Aristotle) is one of the most important sources of modern speech.
  • When people learn their ABC's and when they refer to the alphabet, they are simply saying the names of the first two Greek letters alpha and beta, that is "A" and "B".
  • Later when people talked about "arithmetic", they were very nearly saying arithmos, the Greek word for "numbers".
  • Even when a person goes into the kitchen and washes dishes, he or she can't do it without handling something with a Greek name.
  • The word "dish" is Greek since it comes from diskos, meaning "paten" a small plate usually made of silver or gold, used to hold the Eucharistic bread in a church and later the meaning was extended to include "dishes".
  • The modern word for "dish" comes from Old English disc, "plate, bowl, platter"; borrowed about 700 A.D. from Latin discus, "dish, platter, quoit"; from Greek diskos, "disk, platter".
  • One word from ancient Greek shows how meanings change; for example, rich men in Greece had an easy life and no tiresome work to do and with plenty of leisure time.
  • During this spare time they gave the name of scho-le and in this period they were devoted to discussions, studies, and instructions.
  • Since they studied in their scho-le, they were called "scholars"; and the place where they studied came to be called "school".
  • A "dilemma" is not an animal, in spite of its two "horns" although the word comes from Greek di, "double", and lemma, "proposition" or "assumption".
  • When we have to choose between two propositions, each unfavorable to us, we are said to be "on the horns of a dilemma".
-Compiled from excerpts located in
"On the Origin of Words" by Alexander McQueen as presented in
The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language;
Consolidated Book Publishers; Chicago; 1971; pages vii and viii.

Focusing on Words is an introduction to the sources of information about historical words used in modern languages including English.

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