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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Words are tireless soldiers of fortune. They go where they’re needed, and they’ve been known to follow the money wherever it leads. Sometimes these wandering words fit in seamlessly when they land in a given language. Other times, they’re unlike anything else in the local vocabulary—just ask anyone who’s tried to find an English rhyme for the Wanderwort orange. This instalment discusses three colour-related wanderers that are known for giving English poets a hard time when it comes to rhyme.
In these exceptional times, this month’s words are never far from our thoughts. Not only do they dominate the news cycle, but they are an inescapable part of daily life: returning travellers are instructed to quarantine, parts of the world have imposed curfews, while almost all of us are being encouraged to isolate.
As our regular readers will know, the relationship between our selected words is not always obvious. Even so, this month’s offering may appear particularly perplexing.
The festive season is drawing to a close. As in previous years, gifts were exchanged, cards were sent, and people were scolded for using the abbreviation Xmas. Criticisms of Xmas are manifold: some simply advise against using it in formal contexts, while others object more strongly, describing it as an attempt to secularize the holiday by replacing the name Christ with an “X”. Is there any truth to this last charge?