- Category: The Root of the Word
- Published on Thursday, 19 January 2012 18:52
- Written by Jem Wierenga
- Hits: 2177
Words have meaning.
It’s something my mother always said, and by golly she was right! But not all words are coined equal. The Root of the Word is a bimonthly blog series designed to look into the etymology and evolution of some of the more exotic English words. It is also intended to help you, the writer, gain a better understanding of the subtlety of our language as well as appreciate the variegated aromas that words with dual definitions can add to your literary bouquet.
This series will not only look at specific words, their origins and correct usage, but will also touch upon how culture, history and regional preference have changed the meaning of words over time. Occasionally, we will also examine various theories of language (though I promise not to get too professorial!). Let's begin with a brief overview of definition.
There are two basic schools of thought regarding language. One, the theory favored by texting tweens and postmodern poets, is that the meaning of words is flexible, ever-evolving and prone to constant change. The second theory, championed by philosophers and grade school English teachers, is that words have a precision that requires a sense of linguistic permanence.
Most writers hold the middle ground.
While it is clear that language is not fully static (as in the example of the late 20th Century word 'tweenager', a portmanteau of between and another recently coined term teenager), neither is it unconditionally pliable. This leads us to our first ROOT PRINCIPLE -
1. SYNONYMS ARE NOT SUBSTITUTIONS.
Big does not mean tall, ground doesn't equal earth, etc. While many words have similar enough definitions that a quick swap out gives sufficient variety, more complex words present a greater depth of meaning, and therefore require a better understanding of their definition (and a greater responsibility on the part of the writer to honor their use and usage). Thus, here is our second ROOT PRINCIPLE -
2. A THESAURUS IS A FRIEND YOU SHOULD SEE RARELY.
It's true. At times all writers are simply at a loss for words. But here's the deal; you can only and should be only writing what you know. Your trusty Merriam's can get you out of a sticky spot (Lord knows I've turned to its welcoming pages in some dark times), but you'll be better off expanding your vocabulary with good conversation or reading challenging books rather than trying to imagine the proper context of a thesauric entry. Let's act out an example of how a thesaurus can fool you.
Look up the word 'old' in any thesaurus and you'll likely find 'venerable' listed as a synonym (it checked out in three of mine). Now assuming we're not familiar with the usage and definition of 'venerable' - admirable or august, particularly revered because of its age - to substitute 'venerable' for 'old' might lead to some confusion. Furthermore, since the word historically was chiefly employed in 15th Century Catholic canonization proceedings, we can really get into trouble if we use it willy-nilly.
What seems to be a nifty, archaic word for antique or aged actually has a wealth of meaning, nuance and history behind it. Obviously I've offered an extreme and unlikely scenario, but this should give you a picture of the type of topics we'll be delving into with The Root of the Word. I'm endlessly fascinated by how subtle English can be, and it'll be great to navigate with all of you the greater depths of our language.
Final question - What are some words that you find fascinating, challenging, or are prone to misuse? Let me know in this forum. I'd love to explore them further.