So far we’ve looked at how people express misunderstanding and the tricky ways false friends can throw us off. This time, we reach back to English’s roots and look at some words that might as well be from other languages. (Spoiler: They often are.)
The internet is littered with lists of weird and unusual English words (like this one, this one, and this one). Words like “batrachomyomachy” and “gastromancy” not only twist our tongues, but also go right over our heads. But people don’t actually use these words, do they? How can we figure out what they mean? And where do they come from?
Every word tells a story.
We use the term “etymology” to refer to the origin of a word and its historical development. When trying to wrap our heads around these bizarre words, it may be helpful to take a look at their etymologies in order to get a better idea of how they came to be – and why they fit in the English language despite being relegated to odd lists on the internet.
Let’s look at the word “oocephalus.” Literally, it means “egghead,” as in, a person or animal with an egg-shaped head. How do we get egghead out of oocephalus? As with many English words, we can thank the Greeks and Romans. “Oocephalus” came together by combining the Greek word for “egg,” oion with the Latin word for “head,” kephale. Don’t believe us? What if we told you that oion itself comes from an older Proto-Indo-European root, awi, meaning “bird.” This later produced Latin’s avis, which is where we get the word “avian.”
Looking at etymology can also explain some of English’s other quirks. For example, what’s up with silent letters? A word like “knife” could work perfectly well without that pesky “k,” so why is it there? And where did it come from? Looking back, we can see that these letters were once pronounced. But our English forebearers, just like us, were very inventive with the language. Pronunciation is no exception. With “knife,” over time the “k” sound was dropped, but the spelling remained the same.
The English language’s exceptional development is to blame for the many conflicting spelling and pronunciation rules. With words derived or borrowed from Latin, Greek, Germanic languages, and modern Romance languages (more on this below), it’s no wonder English resulted in such a beautiful blend. Look no further than ghoti to see how mixed up the language can become.
Every language does, too.
English isn’t the only language that can benefit from an etymology inspection. In any language, looking at a particular word’s past and story can reveal a lot about how it fits in with the rest of the vocabulary. Even similarities between entire languages can be understood by following the breadcrumbs back in time. You may have heard Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian referred to as the Romance languages. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everything spoken in French will woo your one and only (although the word “romantic” does share a related history). In this case, “Romance” refers to each language’s historical descent from Vulgar Latin, the language of Rome. At it’s height, the Roman Empire spread from modern-day Spain and Portugal all the way to the Middle East. After its fall, the speech of each region began to evolve individually at a much faster rate. Eventually, the differences became so pronounced that each region had achieved its own, distinguished language.
There’s a saying that gets tossed around our creative team: “A designer’s work is never done.” Similarly, a language is never completely mastered. But that doesn’t have to be your goal. Learning is a process, and through your journey soaking up grammar rules, vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation, you’re going to make many mistakes. But just as we said in our discussion of false friends, the best way to deal with the odd parts of language learning is to embrace them. Make mistakes, get things wrong, and maybe even embarrass yourself. You’ll be all the better for it.