The history of two 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.

This is an excerpt from an article I wrote in 2010 and published on, which was an experiment in art directing my writings back then. In it, I discuss the importance of the study of the origin of words. I also look into two words we use daily, but do not necessarily stop to think of the original meaning of the words.

Read my article The History of Words here.

Learn new words easily

With his talk at TED, Matt Cutts inspired the likes of Jacob Cass and Jesse Gardner (among many others) to try new things by setting up new challenges every day for thirty days. According to Matt, such everyday adventures make life more memorable. They boost your self-confidence and enable you to do anything.

One of the things Jesse planned for the month of December 2011 was to learn one new word a day for thirty days. Here, I present a couple techniques for you to succeed, should you decide copying Jesse’s challenge is for you.


Say you come across a couple of words that sound almost the same, but mean totally different things. This happens very often, when you are learning words in a foreign language. What’s the best way to learn them? Make use of your imagination! Try and ask this question, “When I say the words in another language I know, what associations are popping in my head?”

In the Armenian language, for example, the words for fish, snow and egg sound almost the same: ձուկ [dzuk], ձյուն [dzyun] and ձու [dzu]. Here’s how I remembered them: dzyun ends with the letter N, which is contained by only one of the three given words in English, namely, sNow. There were two words left. Fish are usually larger than eggs, so the word is also larger, dzuk is fish and an dzu is left for the word egg.

The ideas can obviously be very far-fetched. But remember – just because it may not work for someone doesn’t mean it should’t work for you. You may be the only person in the world who gets the association. And that’s totally fine! It’s your thirty-day challenge, not others’.


At school, we got exercises where you had to spell very long words. Many memory games use telephone numbers as material for you to remember a long row of decimals. And just like the game authors suggest you break the numbers up, I suggest you do the same with long words.

There’s a muscle called sternocleidomastoideus in Latin. If you are unfamiliar with human anatomy, it’s a paired muscle on the left and right side of your neck. It does a good job helping you flex and rotate your head. The first time you see the word, you might even have a hard time pronouncing it. So, in order to remember it, I broke it in chunks and here’s the approximate span of my reasoning:

Stern means firm, strict or stiff, which makes me think of a neck, too.

Клей [kley] means glue in Russian (my first language).

Дома [doma] means at home in Russian.

Сто [sto] means hundred in Russian.

So, I get this word sterno-clei-doma-sto-ideus all broken up. And when I think of a hundred ideas that are firmly glued together at home, my neck starts hurting. Indeed, both of my sternocleidomastoideii are in pain.

You would probably use this word close to never in a liftetime, but if you do and know how to spell it, geeky linguistic bonus points fly instantly your way from yours truly.

You might think there are words that are hard to remember and you would be right. But there are no words, I assure you, that are impossible to remember. It just takes some time and creativity.

Stop hitting that button, Bobby! – A quick guide to four verbs online

Do you push a button, press it, hit it or click it? What about a link? Here’s a set of guidelines to the four verbs that I’ve written for your linguistic accuracy online. Enjoy!

You hit…

  • the jackpot
  • it off with a friend
  • your neighbour’s car with a bat at night and run away

You click…

  • your heels
  • on a link or an icon
  • with your girlfriend

You press…

  • the red button
  • the juice out of a mango
  • a criminal for an answer
  • the flesh with the friend you hit it off with

You push…

  • a button (with force)
  • your way through the crowd
  • your luck and limits pressing on running away from the neighbour whose car you hit with a bat

Disclaimer: no bats, cars or humans were hit, pushed, pressed or clicked in the making of this blog post. No buttons or links were hit either. Ever. Well, never linguistically.

One letter

Everyone knew I was different. Special even. I knew English like no one else in the class. Indeed, the whole school. Or even neighbourhood. People called me names. Names like “genius”. No, not bullying around. Just stating the obvious, I guess. But with no admiration either. And not without envy or annoyance.

During my several years of school, we had many teachers of English. I can now remember at least ten to twelve different people trying to teach me their philological proficiency. It is hard to explain the fluidity of personnel. Maybe that was the point? Or maybe they did not see it?

The teachers were glad and supportive. They liked me. Most of the time, at least. Especially in the rare occasions of my making a mistake. They could then prove me wrong in front of the class. I guess they were all after the feeling of being superior to me. Sometimes they did dislike me. Usually when I pointed out their linguistic errors, that is. They felt they were questioned. They probably feared their authority was being undermined, too.

I like words, you see. Always have. When others were read fairy tales to or some other fiction for children, I read dictionaries and thesauri. Big to small, black to red, Webster to Oxford. Other kids would ask me how this word was to be spelled or how that phrase was to be written out. And the teachers would sharpen their ears, too. Maybe to test me. Probably to learn.

We had often what was called “dictations”. The teacher would pronounce twenty to thirty words we had learned by heart and we were to write them down on a piece of paper. No one was allowed to even consider cheating by peeking at other’s writings, let alone talk to each other. We would then hand our masterpieces to the teacher. She would read through each and every word and correct contingent mistakes.

One day, when I was thirteen or fourteen, we had the same kind of a survival test. I had been learning hard the night before and was sure to get all the words she would provide right. The kind of a linguistically competitive perfectionist that I am, I would be mildly put disheartened by having to “lose” to a teacher. Imagine my dismay when I got the paper back just to be informed I had not got the perfect score. I wrote “kindom” instead of “kingdom”. It was a genuine one-letter verbal faux pas. By my dimmed blue eyes, the teacher could sense me begging for life.

There is one lesson I know I learned from that episode in my life. My teacher, knowing how badly I needed to be perfect never stepped back. She gave me no freedom to even conceive a thought of me being able to get away with the slightest mistake. She may not have caused, but she sure enabled me to crave the perfection, that I had been striving for, more and more. She may not have taught me English, but she definitely taught me one thing. That this urge, the surge to score the perfect goal had, if at all, to be quenched some other time, some other place.

My teacher did not succumb to my selfish desire to compete and become better. Because of that, I, in my turn, did not gave way to despair over the minute, but at that moment colossal, failure of mine. Instead, I took it as a challenge. Which I now live out every single day.

Needless to say, the feral letter is ever present in every one of my “kingdoms”.

When you fail, how do you get back up on your feet again?

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.


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 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.)


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 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)


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.

Word-choice in media

RIA Novosti has chosen to publish an article with an interesting headline – “The king of pop turns half a century”.
Image: RIA Novosti headlineNow this is very smart. You choose to type more characters, i.e. “half a century” instead of “50”, and you get a totally different effect. He suddenly turns much older than my ever-young mother, even though they are born the same year, 1958. This puts things into perspective, I can say. Here is my all-time Motown Jackson favourite – “I want you back” by Jackson 5.

Пьющие лингвисты

Шведы интересный народ. Я заметил одну любопытную закономерность. Их желание общаться со мной по-английски пропорционально потреблению ими алкоголя. Даже несмотря на то, что они знают, что я понимаю и говорю по-шведски.

Казалось бы всё просто и понятно. Больше потребление – больше желание показать свои прекрасные знания языка и гостеприимство. Но этот феномен оказался гораздо сложнее, чем прямая пропорциональность. Ниже привожу график с объяснениями.

Кривая AA1 представляет собой графическое отображение данного феномена, где y – желание общаться со мной по-английски (далее в тексте “желание”), а x – количество потреблённого алкоголя (далее в тексте “потребление”).


Всё начинается с пункта A. По мере потребления, желание постепенно и медленно увеличивается. В пункте Z, они замечают, что я существую, и желание побеседовать со мной на английском стремительно растёт, хоть и потребление остаётся почти неизменным (отрывок ZP).

Через некоторое время, в пункте P, они понимают, что я непьющий, и желание, хоть и возрастает, начинает убавлять темпы и доходит до самого интересного момента – пункта N, где желание достигает абсолютного, а потребление относительного максимума, когда они уже не помнят своё собственное имя.

Далее следует чистая спекуляция. На отрывке NA1, только логично, что при большем потреблении (и если возможно, то и дальше, за пунктом A1 – поэтому и отрывистая линия), желание резко падает.

Исследование проведено на примерах двух независимых испытуемых пьющих лингвистах и требует дополнительных ресурсов для продолжения и достижения более весомых результатов.