The History of Some Common Words in English – Some General Observations

This tomb turned out to be such a masterpiece of architecture that it was recognized all over as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This wonder of the world was turned into a ruin later because of an earthquake though it continues to be an important source of historical information.

The word mausoleum, which was named after the King Mausolus, still survives, however, and has proved to be in that sense a more durable source of historical information than the dilapidated mausoleum built at Halicarnassus.

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It would be naive to suggest that in the interaction between history and etymology the gain will always be one-sided. When two disciplines interact, the interaction enriches and enlivens both the sides. Etymology may have to obtain more from history than it may have to offer.

It needs to be recognized, nevertheless, that the insights arising out of a study of the history of the words may fill numerous small little gaps of information here and there and can even be used as corroborative evidence of a fairly crucial nature at times.

If history is a re-creation of past experience in the mind of the historian as Croce described it to be, the history of the words can undoubtedly help to re-create that past experience more effectively.

(ii) It is very widely agreed by historians these days that history is not a mere compilation of specific facts and events in the past but the identification and validation of significant generalities manifesting themselves in these specific facts and events.

As Toynbee has rightly pointed out, history is not “a chaotic, disorderly fortuitous flux in which there is no pattern or rhythm of any kind to be discerned”. History repeats itself in the sense that though no two events of history are exactly identical, the same basic human tendencies, the same instinctual drives for being and becoming, the same profound urge to conquer death, the same human urge to attain great heights intertwined with the same animal impulse to be mean, selfish, jealous and irrational manifest themselves in all our actions again and again.

The history of the words we use manifests these basic tendencies no less than any other day-to-day facts or events. Time passes and things change but accounts of the actions of individuals, groups and nationalities are preserved in the origin of words for a long time to come. Words need to be considered, therefore, not only as linguistic units but also as fossilized bits of history.

One of those facts about human beings that the story of words expresses in an overwhelmingly large number of instances is their instinctual desire to live forever. Man considers it a misfortune to be drowned but what shakes the very core of his existence is the fear to be drowned in the endless sea of oblivion.

Urchins’ secret attempt to scratch their names on stone monuments, stone statues built in the memory of people we would like to be remembered for a long time, the desire to exist at least in the form of photographs and portraits after one’s death, painters writing their names at the bottom of their paintings and the like are some of the manifestations of man’s instinctual desire not to be forgotten.

This desire manifests itself in a big way in the formation of new words for naming things. America, for example, was named after Americus Ves Pucius. Cologne is a short form of Colonia Agrippina, the original name of the city named after Agrippina, wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius. Nicotine is the name of the diplomat who introduced the seeds of tobacco.

The word spoonerism is based on the name of the Rev. W. A. Spooner, and mercerised cotton is so called because it was John Mercer, who discovered the process necessary for cotton to be mercerised. Science is known for its objectivity and it is said that in scientific investigations it is the objective rigour of the procedure and the personality of the investigator that counts.

From the point of view of naming things after personalities, however, scientists are in no way different from people in other professions. Words like ampere, ohm, volt, watt, Fahrenheit, and Celsius are all technical terms used in physics.

It would not be out of place to remind ourselves at this stage, however, that ampere was originally the name of Andre Marie Ampere, ohm, the name of G. S. Ohm, watt the name of James Watt, Fahrenheit, the name of Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit and Celsius, the name of Anders Celsius, a Swedish scientist.

The word volt, similarly, is reminiscent of the name of Alessandro Volta, another Swedish scientist. The linguistic device of naming something after ourselves or after someone dear to us is as much a part of history as the device of getting an architectural monument built with the purpose of commemorating someone.

(iii) The number of English words derived from the names of gods and goddesses is so large that no account of the history of words in English will ever be complete without any reference to the ancient mythological figures of Greece, Rome and Scandinavia. Tuesday, for example, was named after Tiw, an ancient god of Norse mythology and Wednesday was named after the Germanic god Woden.

Thursday was named after the Norse god Thor and Friday was named after Frigg, the wife of Woden and the Norse goddess of marriage. January was named after the Roman god Janus, who had two faces and the month of May is believed to have been named after the Roman goddess Maia, who was the mother of the god Hermes.

The word June was derived from the name Juno, the Roman goddess known to be the protectress of women. The word cereal is derived from the name of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, the word panic was derived from the name of Pan, the Greek god with two small horns on his head and the word panacea was derived from the name of Panakeia, the daughter of Aslepius, the Greek god of medicine.

The word aphrodisiac was derived from the name of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love; the word hermaphrodite was derived from the names of Hermes and Aphrodite and the word venereal has its origin in the name of Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty and love.

A number of words have been named after well-known national heroes and heroines as well. The word July and, similarly, the word caesarean in the expression “caesarean operation”, have been derived from the name of Julius Caesar and the month of August was named after Augustus Caesar. The number of words having their origins in the names of mythological figures seems to be much larger, however, than the number of words derived from the names of national heroes and heroines.

(iv) Another thing that becomes obvious from the study of the story of words in English is the fact that a very large number of them have a metaphorical origin. The role of metaphors in language has been frequently discussed by philosophers and literary critics. Quintilian, for example, described the metaphor as the commonest and the most beautiful of all the figures of speech and Aristotle declared it to be the best gift of the poet. Beardsley describes it as “a linguistic phenomenon of peculiar philosophical interest and importance” and Wheelwright (1954) describes it as “a medium of fuller and riper knowing”.

The role that metaphors have played in the formation of words has not, however, received the attention that it deserves. English words having a metaphorical origin are so large in number that it would be naive to ignore such words in any dependable account of the history of words. For example, a man who is astonished is, in view of the etymology of the word astonish, like a man who has been struck by thunder.

The word cabbage is derived from the Old French caboche (head) and in all probability a cabbage was so called because it looked like a human head. The word hippopotamus consists of the Greek hippos (horse) and potamos (river) and a hippopotamus was so called because it looked and behaved like a river horse.

The beautiful flower called aster is so called because it looks like a star. The word clove is derived from the Latin clovis (nail) and a clove is so called because it looks like a nail. The word garlic consists of the Old English gar (spear) and leac (leek) and garlic is so called because the solid blade of a garlic plant looks like a spear.

The orchid is so called because its tuberous roots look like testicles. The word tulip is derived from the Turkish word tulbend, which means “turban”, and the flower tulip is so called because its velvet structure reminds us of a turban.

The word spaghetti is derived from the Italian spago (thread) and spaghetti is so called because its long strands look like thread. Funk (1988) was so overwhelmingly impressed by the number of such words in English that he went to the extent of saying that “every word was once a poem. Each began as a picture.

Our language is made up of terms that were all originally figures of speech”. To say, as Funk does, that every word in English or in any other language has a figurative origin is certainly an exaggeration but it is an exaggeration of something which is essentially true.

(v) The observations made above can be further exemplified by the stories of some words discussed below. It may be pointed out here, however, that the words discussed in the following paragraphs represent only a very small percentage of the words that one would like to mention for the purpose of illustrating how fascinating it can be to study the history of words we use in our day-to-day life.