Modern English is the result of a grand linguistic experiment in creative packaging, in that the roots of its grammar are characteristically Germanic, but its vocabulary is dominated by the classical heritage of Greece and Rome. It’s been a long time since English-speaking children learned Greek and Latin in school, but the effects of traditional “Western” classical education are still all around us. Greek and Latin have shaped about half the words English speakers use today, including almost all of our technical and scientific terminology. This Word Stories instalment looks at what can happen when this profusion of Greek and Latin roots gets tangled up in English, for example in the popular temptation to use Latin endings for words that look Latin, like octopus.
At first glance, pluralizing words in English might look trivially easy. All you need to do is add -s: one word, two words. There are plenty of irregular plural forms too, though, like one child, two children and one mouse, two mice. This Language Matters instalment asks why the final -s is the dominant way to mark plural nouns, but not the only one.
In the modern world, astrology is often treated as a hobby, hovering somewhere between self-help and light entertainment. As the English language shows, though, the possibility that heavenly bodies might shape earthly life was a deadly serious concern for our ancestors.
Neologisms (new words, senses or expressions) are added to living languages all the time, through coinages, borrowings or revivals, and many do not stay relevant for long. Faced with the near-infinite potential of lexical creativity, lexicographers (the people tasked with creating dictionaries) can include only a selection of new words.
Autological words are words that describe themselves—as opposed to all the heterological words that don’t. The adjective pentasyllabic is autological, for example, since it has five syllables. Monosyllabic, on the other hand, is heterological, since it has far more than one.
The use of like is widespread in colloquial speech, yet it is still viewed negatively, even by those who use it. How then, is like used in everyday language? And why do so many people dislike it?
When people decide to take a little rest for the sake of their health, they often say they’re looking for some “peace and quiet.” The association of noise with unrest can be found throughout the English language. This Word Stories instalment explores the longstanding linguistic contradistinction between peaceful quiet and unsettling noise.
Invoking the year is a punchy, concise way to advocate for improvement, but despite its frequent use, it is sometimes criticized for promoting a nonuniversal belief that progress is inevitable and for being a lazy substitute for more rigorous argumentation. So, is it time to move on from it?
When astronomers refer to the famous Almagest written by Claudius Ptolemy, they may not realize they are repeating themselves. Ptolemy’s “greatest” work (Greek Megistē) was preserved for centuries in an Arabic version called The Greatest (al-Majisṭī). Saying “the Algamest” therefore amounts to saying “the the greatest”. The words discussed in this instalment have all smuggled the Arabic article al- into common English, through various linguistic trade routes.