The History of Words

There are many words that we use daily, but have no clue if, say a thousand years ago, they meant what they mean today. Is there a way to know which origin different words have? Yes, there is. The study of the origin and evolution of words is called etymology and, in fact, there are more words of foreign origin in many European languages than we can imagine.

Introduction

The importance of etymology is widely under­estimated today. Language is one of the few things humans possess that other creatures do not. As a means of communication, it is the most subtle and sophisticated one. And its historical development is far from boring!

The study of the history of words can find its implication in many different areas. Take translating and interpreting practices, for example. No computer-generated translation of texts can rival one done by a human in accuracy. Not yet. And I doubt that computers will prove an equal counterpart to humans concerning the translation from one language to another in the nearest future, even though there are many services that are trying to bridge the gap between people of different linguistic experiences. Three of the most well-known translation services are, probably, Google TranslateBing Translator (formerly known as Yahoo! Babel Fish) and Dictionary.com Translator.

Or take teaching foreign languages. What an advantage it would be and what ease it would bring for students (and even teachers) to know the connection between the meaning and pronunciation of a certain word! That is what etymology is all about. It is about finding and discovering connections that are hidden under the massive layers of history, behind the thick curtains of time. (When one does uncover a couple of such links, the others become clearer and more obvious.)

Hello

Hi! Hello! Howdy! How many times a day do you use that word? A couple? A hundred? Do you ever stop to think about what you are really saying when you say “Hello!” to someone you meet?

There is a somewhat popular myth that hello is a word made up after the telephone was invented in 1876. Though hello did win over Graham Bell’s suggested ahoy as a phrase to answer the telephone, the origin of the word hello goes a few centuries back into the history of communication. In the middle of the 19th century, its variant hallo was used to express a greeting or attract attention. Even earlier, in the middle of the 1500s, hollo, itself a variant of holla (now both obsolete) was used and meant stop! (Does the word halt ring any bell?).

Now, holla probably comes from Old French and is a compound of ho (ho!) and la (there). (And does this not remind one of the Spanish hola?) One can speculate that hello and whole are related in the English language (whole can itself be related to heal and health). Whole is hel in the Scandinavian languages, heel in Dutch, celý in Czech and целый in Russian. In many languages, a form of healthy is used to express a greeting, for example, sveiki in Latvian and здравствуйте in Russian.

Water

Water covers almost 71 per cent of the surface of our planet, it is vital for the survival of everyone and everything on the earth, it was considered as one the four basic elements, and yet, for the most part, we take it for granted. Not only its existence and maintenance, but also its historic and linguistic development.

Did you know that cologne or eau de cologne, even though the phrase is in French, originated from Cologne, Germany and, if written in the original language, it would read Wasser von Köln. And how about this one – did you know that feng shui literally means wind water and is a Chinese system of aesthetics aimed at receiving harmony and balance?

There are many water-related words in the English language that originate from other languages. Aquarium, for example, comes from Latin, but back then it meant “drinking place for cattle”. A very curious transition compared to the word’s meaning today, isn’t it? Another example is a popular word dehydrated coming from dehydration, which means “an excessive loss of water from the body”. The latter comes itself from the Greek hýdor (as does hydrogen or hydrate).

Here’s an illustration of how the word water is similar and different in spelling and pronunciation in seven languages:

Wasser (German)

vatten (Swedish)

vann (Norwegian)

voda (Bosnian)

aqua (Latin)

νερό [neró] (Greek)

eau (French)

Conclusion

The applications of the study of the history of words are broad and wide. The connections between words and their meanings in different languages abound in quantity and are next to impossible to recount. The longer you have used a language and the deeper you have been into finding out more about it and the wider your interests are in general, the easier it is for you to notice and make use of these connections.