In researching the etymological evolution of words, it’s taken for granted that we’ll see them passed down from one language to the next. Today’s Word Stories instalment is a little different. Every once in a while, a word that has been passed from one language to another can find itself passed right back, like a serve returned in a game of ping-pong. The etymological notes below shine a spotlight on this curious phenomenon, by showing how the game can be played out between English and French.
Few punctuation marks require less explanation than the period. As English’s default symbol of final punctuation, it tends to cause far fewer linguistic headaches than commas, semicolons or em-dashes. The fact that periods mark the end of a sentence is easy to grasp and has rarely been the subject of debate. Straightforward and uncontroversial though they are, nowadays, people end their sentences with periods a little less often than they used to.
In today’s instalment, we look at some words that have stretched and drifted in directions so unpredictable they’ve rotated a full 180 degrees away from their original connotations.
Place names, or toponyms, are said to be one of the stablest aspects of language, with many toponyms carried down through generations and surviving immense transformations in the civilizations that inhabit them. And yet, there are times when a location changes its toponym or has more than one. For example, should we prefer Eswatini or Swaziland; Czech Republic or Czechia? This Language Matters article investigates why toponyms sometimes compete or change over time.
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.