Words on Word History: Introduction
ne of the most fascinating aspects of words is that they all have a past. Some words in English, for example, can be shown to have been in place for more than 5000 years, going all the way back to our oldest recoverable linguistic ancestor, Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Words like "one", "two" and other lower numerals, or words like "father", "mother" and other basic kinship terms, have existed over many millennia, virtually unchanged in their meaning. Other words have extremely short histories. For example, the word "smog" (a blend of "smoke" and "fog") or "radar" (an acronym based on the phrase "radio detecting and ranging") are relative newcomers to the language.
Figuring out the history of a word according to methodologically consistent principles is called the science of etymology. An etymology spans the entire history of a word, from its beginnings right up to the present time. A complete etymology covers all aspects of a word: how its pronunciation has developed over time (e.g. the English word "ship" used to be pronounced as if it were "skip"); how its grammar has changed (e.g. the English verb "to network" did not exist as a verb 50 years ago); and its meaning (e.g. "the web" certainly meant something different to speakers ten years ago from what it means now).
An intriguing aspect of etymology is that, for the most part, words change more or less independently of each other, especially in meaning. The aphorism "each word has a history of its own" is an apt one to describe the unpredictable ways in which words are modified over time. Changes in pronunciation are the most regular (for example, the word "show" was once pronounced with a "k", just like "ship"). Changes in the grammar of a word are somewhat less predictable, depending in part on non-linguistic factors.
For example, while "to network", "to fax" and "to e-mail" have all become verbs based on nouns, there are no corresponding verbs like "to answer-machine" based on "answering machine" or "to orange" based on "orange". But the most unpredictable of all is change in meaning. Numerous language-internal, cultural and purely accidental factors can come into play when a word changes its meaning. Meaning changes are for most people the really interesting part of a word's history: how could anyone ever guess, for example, that the word "bead" originally meant "prayer", or that "fiasco" is in origin the Italian word for "flask"? Originally, there was only one way to "ship" something and only one place to "park" your car--can you guess how and where from the nouns these verbs are derived from?
As it turns out, many of the changes that take place, even in meaning, are understandable within a certain range of possible ways that words typically change. For example, a word like "head" as a body part has another, related meaning of "most important person" ("head of the department"), or as a verb meaning "to use one's head" (as in soccer). These kinds of metaphorical or figurative extensions of words are very common ("foot of the hill", "foot the bill"; "mouth of a river", "mouth off"; "knee someone", "knee-jerk reaction"). Modifying the meanings of existing words is a far more efficient and economical way of expanding the vocabulary of a language than adding a new, unrelated word. New words from old ones, that's the idea. In fact, the number of out and out pure creations of brand new words is vanishingly small in the history of English, and the situation is the same for other languages as well.
In this section of yourDictionary.com we will routinely provide fascinating word histories which are prepared in a scientifically rigorous way, but are presented in a format and style that you don't have to be a linguist to understand. I will write some of them, my colleagues will write others. Watch for them. Here are the first three.
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