A. English Etymology Generally.
Etymology is the study of word derivations. Understanding etymology often leads to a greater appreciation of linguistic nuances. For example, knowing the history of words such as the following can open up vistas:
• abominable, L. ab- “off, away from” + ominarie “to prophesy, forebode”—hence “being an evil omen.”
• exorbitant, L. ex- “out of, away from” + orbita “wheel track”—hence “off track” or “out of line.”
• inoculate, L. in- “into” + oculus “eye (i.e., ‘bud,’ as in eye of a potato)”—hence to graft a bud from one plant to another, where it will continue to grow. The sense of implanting germs to produce immunity from a disease dates from the early 18th century.
• symposium, Gk. syn- “together” + posis “a drink.” The term was extended from “a drinking party” to “a convivial meeting for intellectual stimulation,” and then was extended further to “a collection of articles published together on a given topic.”
Learning the classical roots and prefixes of English words—as by studying Donald M. Ayers's English Words from Latin and Greek Elements (Thomas D. Worthen ed., 2d ed. 1986)—will certainly repay the effort.
But while the study can help considerably, making a fetish of it can lead to many linguistic fallacies. For many words, modern usage is pretty well divorced from etymology. For example, in distinguishing assiduous from sedulous, it doesn't particularly help to say that assiduous is “sitting to” a thing and that sedulous is “without trickery.” It would be more helpful to note that although the words are close synonyms, assiduous is much more common (by a 6-to-1 ratio in print). And although the etymology of assiduous suggests greater intensity, the rarity of sedulous betokens a special intensity.
Another fallacy arises when pedants object inflexibly to hybrids or morphological deformities. Some, for example, insist that homophobe, in Greek, would refer to a self-hater. But in English, of course, homo is simply a slang shortening of homosexual, and homophobe—though at variance with classical word formation—is perfectly understandable to any reasonable speaker of AmE. The etymological “error” is no error at all. See homophobe.
So learn all you can about etymology, but temper that knowledge with other types of linguistic facts. Then you'll be in a position to choose words prudently. And you'll be better equipped to answer questions such as these: Must alternatives be limited to two? Must a decimation involve the destruction of only 10% of a group of things? Is the better spelling lachrymose or ✳lacrimose? Must a magistrate be the supreme judge in a given jurisdiction? Which spelling is right: idiosyncrasy or ✳idiosyncracy? Does inflammable mean that something will ignite, or won't? For views on those questions, see the appropriate entries.
B. Native vs. Classical Elements.
The English language has undoubtedly benefited from its diverse sources. This diversity springs mostly from the English Renaissance, when writers decided to supplement what they considered a meager vocabulary by importing words.
They borrowed freely from foreign languages—mostly Latin, French, and Greek—when adding to the English word-stock. William Caxton, who introduced printing into England in 1477, is credited in the OED with the first use of abjure, admiration, apparition, calumnious, capacity, desperate, factor, ingenious, inhuman, nuptial, seduce, and sumptuous, among many other words. It might be hard for modern readers to imagine a time when those words seemed foreign or absurd. But many of Caxton's other borrowings haven't fared so well: for example, excidion (= a rooting out), exercite (= army), magistration (= a command). Another early word-borrower, Thomas Elyot, wrote in the early 16th century. Like Caxton, Elyot had his word-coining successes (animate, attraction, education, excrement, exterior, frugality, irritate, persist) and his failures (allective, applicate, assentatour). In that respect, these writers are typical of the age.
Some coinages from that period seem to have arisen not from any felt need but from a particular writer's penchant for the far-fetched. Our historical dictionaries are brimming with strange and ridiculous formations, such as celeripedian (= a swift footman) and latrocination (= highway robbery). Many such terms, which appeared only once or twice in the recorded history of the language, were coined by fervent neologists who had little or no sense of linguistic necessity. See neologisms.
The result of all this word-coining, though, is that English now has many sets of words formed from analogous etymological elements. Many of these words, having coexisted in English for many centuries, retain the same basic meanings:
But others have undergone differentiation to varying degrees:
Those listings show that the Greek derivatives tend to be the most arcane, the Latin a little less so, and the Anglo-Saxon not at all. But this tendency has many exceptions. The Anglo-Saxon gainsay is certainly less common today than the Latin contradict, and the Anglo-Saxon hapless is out of luck in competition with the Latinate unfortunate. And the Greek is much more common than the Latin in the following pairs: anonymous (Gk.) and innominate (L.); hypodermic (Gk.) and subcutaneous (L.); anthology (Gk.) and florilegium (L.).
All in all, though, the generalization about Greek derivatives—when they have synonyms from Latin or Anglo-Saxon—holds true. Many Greek terms lie at the periphery of the English language—e.g.:
analphabetic (= illiterate [L.], unlettered [A.S.])
anamnesis (= reminiscence [L.])
chirography (= handwriting [A.S.])
exlex (= outlaw [A.S.])
peritomy (= circumcision [L.])
In specialized writing, a knowledge of classical languages is especially helpful: Latin in law, for example, or Greek and Latin both in medicine. But regardless of your career path, it's useful to enhance your awareness of Greek and Latin word roots. You'll gain a greater sensitivity to the English language and its origins and nuances.
C. Etymological Awareness.
Through wide reading and a conscious sensitivity to words and their origins, good writers become aware of etymological associations that may escape others. Ignorance of etymologies can easily lead writers astray, as when a journalist gave the label holocaust (Gk. “burnt whole”) to a flood. Following are sentences in which writers wandered into etymological bogs:
• “The right to exclude or to expel aliens in war or in peace is an inherent and inalienable right of every independent nation.” (The root alien- causes problems when we say that a country has an inalienable right to exclude aliens.)
• “What we are concerned with here is the automobile and its peripatetic [= able to walk up and down, not just itinerant] character.”
• “This is a result which, if at all possible consonant [lit., “sounding together”] with sound judicial policy, should be avoided.”
In the first and third specimens, an incongruous repetition of the root sense occurs; in the second, the writer has insensitively abstracted and broadened a word still ineluctably tied to its root sense. Cf. sound of prose & verbal awareness.
D. Folk Etymology.
Popular notions of etymology are often quite colorful—and quite wrong. Indeed, word origins are a common subject of conversation in English-speaking countries. But such discussions ought to be well grounded because linguistic resources are widely available to serve as guides.
That wasn't always so, and folk etymology has left its mark on the language. Take a few common examples. Pea is a false singular of pease, which was mistakenly taken as a plural. Likewise, a newt is a historical error for an ewt, an adder for a nadder, and an apron for a napron. Titmouse now makes the plural titmice even though the word has no real connection with mouse or mice. Primrose and rosemary were earlier primerole and romarin, neither of which has anything to do with roses, but they were respelled precisely on that mistaken assumption.
Historical examples may be interesting, but modern examples are still reparable. To cite but one example, many well-educated people believe that posh means “port outward, starboard home,” and that the word refers to the most desirable positions in an ocean liner. In fact, though, professional etymologists haven't ascertained that etymology—indeed, they’ve pretty much rejected it. So under posh, most dictionaries say “origin unknown.” Although the popular notion would make it a colorful term, the facts unfortunately get in the way of a good story.
In fact, etymologists are immediately suspicious of any proffered word origin that involves an acronym. But that doesn't stop the stories from being told like the urban legends they usually are. No, tip does not mean “to insure promptness.” (And in any event, tep would have been the better spelling if the word were an acronym, since ensure would be correct in this context, not insure. See assure.) In fact, the word goes back to the Middle English tippe, and from there probably further back to the Low German, but the precise origin isn't known. That's the kind of answer that can spawn silly ahistorical theories.
A typical example of folk etymology occurs in the following sentence, in which the writer apparently wants the base word mean to bear its ordinary English sense in the word demean: “By ridiculing the idea of vampires (‘Vampires haunt Russian psyche,’ 14 November), you demean yourself (literally, deprive yourself—and us—of meaning) and hold out a less-than-supporting hand to the northern Russians whose plight you depict.” Letter of M.J. Platts, “They Say Vampires, We Have Phobias,” Independent, 18 Nov. 1992, at 22. In fact, though, demean doesn't mean “to deprive of meaning”; rather, its sense is “to lower in quality or position.”
For other examples of folk etymology treated in this book, see coleslaw, helpmate, hiccup, parti-colored, rescission (a) & Welsh rabbit. For a good study on the subject, see Hugh Rawson, Devious Derivations (1994). For a useful historical work, see A. Smythe Palmer, The Folk and Their Word-Lore (1904).
E. Bibliography on English Etymology.
Those wishing to look further into etymology should consult the books listed in the Select Bibliography at the end of this book.