Entertaining Origins

One of the most interesting things about the English vocabulary is finding out where in the world a word comes from. Did it just appear out of thin air? Did someone see a tree for the very first time and just know instinctively that it was a “tree?” Did the first English-speaking person hear a voice from the heavens that taught him to call those looming dome-like things in the distance “mountains”, or those sprigs of green shooting up from the ground “grass?” Just where did all these words we use everyday come from, and why does it matter?

Building your vocabulary could simply entail memorizing scores of words and their meanings, but what fun would that be? Becoming word-savvy is a lot more fun if you can create a curiosity about words. To know the origins of words is to know how our language came to be – – why we talk the way we do. Do we have any clue what we are really saying when we declare we have “jumped on the bandwagon?” And when is the last time you actually saw a “bigwig” in person? For that matter, just what is a “New York minute?” Finding out how these words and phrases came into our common vernacular is like playing Sherlock Holmes – – with far less pipe smoke.

And new words arrive on the scene almost every day. Think just a few years back to when you would have thought that a “blog” was some sort of sea creature. But now we use the word daily in both noun and verb forms and know exactly what we are referring to. Throughout the history of the English language, new words have usually come about in one of several ways. Sometimes a person just simply coins a phrase from his own imagination, and the populous picks it up and runs with it. Other times, new words happen when two common words collide and blend. A young friend of ours is fond of saying he’s been “shock-tified” when static electricity zaps him. Adding modifiers to a base word is yet another way to create a new word. Not only can we be “right-brained” and “left-brained”, but we are also apt to be “hare-brained”, “fur-brained”, and even, on occasion, “addle-brained.”

So, let’s imagine that you are curious enough about a word to want to find out how it came to be? Where do you go? Well, a good dictionary is always a great place to start, because most dictionaries will at least give the country or language of the word’s origin. Phrases can get a little trickier, but there are some thorough online resources. Idiomsite tells the history behind some of our most common English phrases. There is also a terrific UK site that details many of the meanings and origins of popular English phrases. So if you find yourself wondering how “easy as pie” came to be, well, it is as easy as pie to find out.

Where words come from is a fascinating subject, and one of the most fun aspects of word study. Learning more about etymology can only help one’s vocabulary grow and expand. That is what www.vocabulary.co.il is about – – having fun with words, and building vocabulary skills at the same time. Happy word hunting!

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