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The Birth of a Word


Just as the English language was born and has lived a life of change, so too a word has a life. From its birth, a word can undergo changes or remain static throughout its life; it may seem immortal, or it may die. Words have ancestors; they have relatives. Words also have “friends” (synonyms) and “enemies” (antonyms). Studying the life of words is fascinating and gives you an upper hand at understanding and using words and deciphering unfamiliar words you may find on the GRE or in your graduate work.


A word’s ancestor is called a cognate. Cognates are ancient words that bare a close resemblance to modern words. For example, in ancient Indo-European Sanskrit the word father is “pitar;” in Latin, “pater;” in French, “père;” in Spanish “padre.” In Sanskrit, mother is “matar;” in Latin, “mater;” in French, “mère;” in Spanish, “madre.” Sir William Jones, a British judge, was the first to point out the close relationship between languages despite the passage of time. His theory, a theory shared by many today, was that the languages of 1/3 of the human race have a common source in this Indo-European language.


This common source found in cognates should not be confused with borrowed words. Borrowing is one way that words are given birth in theEnglish language. English has borrowed more words than any other language, especially from French and Latin—a direct result from the Norman Conquest. Borrowed words sometimes keep their original form. For example, the French word laissez-faire is commonly used in English and refers to the “policy of non-interference, especially as pertaining to government.” In other instances, however, words change form to fit the accepted rules and pronunciation that govern the English language. For example, the word adroit means “right, justice.” The word is from the French , which means “to” and droit (pronounced dwa), which means “right.” Through their transition to English, the words changed spelling to become one word, the English version lost the accent mark, and the pronunciation changed.

Following are some examples of other borrowed words:





Present meaning: departure from what is normal

Derived from: Latin aberrare, to wander away from

Details of origin: Originally a psychological term describing a person who mentally deviates from the norm.





Present meaning: loathe

Derived from: Latin abominor, “I pray that the event predicted by the omen may be averted”

Details of origin: A superstitious word the Romans uttered to ward off evil spirits when anyone said something unlucky.





Present meaning: distant (as pertaining to emotion)

Derived from: Dutch te loef, to windward; also used as a sailor’s term a loof, to the luff or windward direction

Details of origin: Present meaning suggests that the use of the term to mean "keeping a ship’s head to the wind and away from the shore" developed into our meaning of “distance.”





Present meaning: high-spirited; exuberant

Derived from: Latin ebullire, to boil over

Details of origin: Much as a pot boils over, one who is ebullient “boils over” with enthusiasm.





Present meaning: erase; remove

Derived from: Latin expungere, to prick through or mark off

Details of origin: In ancient Rome, when a soldier would retire, a series of dots and points were placed under his name on service lists.





Present meaning: sociable

Derived from: Latin gregarius and grex, flock or herd

Details of origin: From the idea that animals stayed in flocks or herds because they were sociable came our present-day meaning.





Present meaning: drowsiness; sluggishness

Derived from: Greek lethargia or lethe, forgetfulness

Details of origin: Because of the Greeks belief in afterlife, legend had it that the dead crossed the river Lethe, which took them through Hades. Anyone who drank from the river would forget his past. This idea of forgetfulness lead to our meaning of sluggishness.


While some words are borrowed directly from another language, others are adopted from interesting people and events in history. For example, you have probably at one time or another made a Freudian slip, an unintentional comment based on some subconscious feeling. And did you know that a bootlegger was originally someone who smuggled illegal alcoholic liquor in the tops of his boots? Here are some other words with fascinating histories:





Present meaning: mixture, combination

Derived from: Latin amalgama, alloy of mercury; Greek malagma, softening substance

Details of origin: Evolved to present meaning in 1775.





Present meaning: to remove offensive words from a book

Derived from: Scottish physician Dr. Thomas Bowdler

Details of origin: Dr. Bowdler published an edition of Shakespeare’s works, omitting certain words which he deemed offensive.





Present meaning: exaggerated patriotism

Derived from: one of Napoleon’s soldiers, Nicolas Chauvin

Details of origin: After retiring from the army, Chauvin spoke so highly of himself and his feats while in battle that he became a joke and thus the term was coined.





Present meaning: center of attention or admiration

Derived from: Greek mythology Cynosura, dog’s tail

Details of origin: The Greek god Zeus honored a nymph by placing her as a constellation in the sky. One star in the constellation in particular stood out. To many, the constellation looked like a dog’s tail because of the one bright star.





Present meaning: lacking in consistency; disconnected

Derived from: Romans desultor, a leaper

Details of origin: Often Roman soldiers would go into battle with two horses so that when one horse tired, the soldier could leap to the second horse striding alongside. This person became known as a desultor, or leaper. The term evolved since this leaper only stayed on one horse for a short amount of time before becoming disconnected and jumping to the other horse.





Present meaning: humiliating failure or breakdown

Derived from: Italian fiasco, flask or bottle

Details of origin: Venetian glassblowers set aside fine glass with flaws to use in making ordinary bottles. The term resulted from the fact that something fine should be turned into something ordinary.





Present meaning: whole series or range of something

Derived from: medieval musician Guido of Arezzo

Details of origin: Arezzo was the first to use the lines of the musical staff, and he assigned the Greek letter “gamma” for the lowest tone. This note was called “gamma ut” and thus “gamut” evolved into our present meaning.





Present meaning: uncompromising

Derived from: Spanish intransigente,not compromising

Details of origin: In 1873, Amadeus was forced to give up the throne of Spain. After this occurred, a group of people attempted to form a political party of their own. This group was known as los intransigentesbecause they would not conform to the policies of any other groups.





Present meaning: merry

Derived from: Latin Jovialis, of Jupiter; Jovius, Jupiter

Details of origin: Astrologers believed that those born under the sign of Jupiter were characterized by a merry disposition.





Present meaning: fascinate; spellbind

Derived from: Austrian doctor Friedrich Anton Mesmer

Details of origin: Doctor Mesmer was the first to successfully use hypnotism. Although the term is still used today to relate to the technique of hypnotism, its meaning has broadened to encompass a general idea of fascination.





Present meaning: to exclude from a society as by general consent

Derived from: Greek ostrakon, tile, shell

Details of origin: In ancient Greece, if a man was considered dangerous to society, judges would cast their votes regarding banishment by writing their names on a tile and dropping them in an urn.





Present meaning: isolation to prevent contagion

Derived from: Latin quadraginta, forty and quattuor, four; quarantina, space of forty days

Details of origin: This word has a rich history, originally referring to the period of time that a widow in the 1500’s could live in her dead husband’s house. It was also used to reference the period of 40 days during which Christ fasted in the wilderness. In the 1600’s, the Venetians kept ships at bay for 40 days if their voyage originated in a disease-stricken country. Since then, the term has broadened to encompass any period of isolation.





Present meaning: traitor

Derived from: Norweigan army officer Vidkun Quisling

Details of origin: Although the term loosely refers to a traitor, more specifically it describes a traitor who betrays his country to serve a dictatorial government. Officer Quisling was one such traitor who betrayed Norway to join arms with the Nazis in World War II.





Present meaning: self-seeking flatterer

Derived from: Greek sykon, fig; phantes, one who shows

Details of origin: Originally, a sycophant referred to an informer. Etymologists speculate that the term “fig-shower” was used in this context because ancient Greeks, or sycophants, would act as informers against merchants who were unlawfully exporting figs.


The process by which a word comes into being is called neologism or coinage. A new word is coined when it is used by a large number of people for a significant amount of time. Though not a very specific and measurable process, it is clearer when we look at three main reasons people begin using new words. First, new words are created when two words are combined into one. For example, the word breakfast evolved from the two words break and fast. Breakfast “breaks” the “fast” your body undergoes during the night. Other words like roommate, housewife, stay-at-home, and doorbell were coined by the same process of combining multiple words to form one.


The opposite process also forms new words. For example, the word ref is short for referee; gym is short for gymnasium; and exam is short for examination. It is easy to imagine how shortened words become coined—as a society, we are always looking for shortcuts, and clipping words is a convenient shortcut.


New words are also coined to avoid confusion, most often between languages. For example, have you ever wondered exactly where the tennis term love came from? It seems a strange term to use for scoring. Tennis is originally a French game, and since a zero is egg-shaped, the French referred to it as l’oeuf. This term was confused in translation and only the pronunciation was adopted; English-speakers heard “love” and it stuck. Another example of confusion is the word maudlin, which means “tearfully sentimental.” The word evolved from the British English pronunciation of “Mary Magdalene.” During the Middle Ages, one of the popular plays depicted the life of the Bible’s Mary Magdalene. Because the character was usually tearful in every scene and, because the British pronunciation was “Maudlin,” the term picked up this meaning.

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