Thursday, 20 February 2014

Do you believe we are magic? Words and the history of Etymology

Marilyn Monroe casting spells
Bloody hell - I can't sleep. So I might as well write.

My friend Val asked me if I'd do a blog piece on word origin and idioms in English. I can - but there is so much out there already about the two that I feel like a squirrel re-burying my friend's nuts. I was more interested in the history of giving a crap about words - namely the study of the history of words, their appearance and usage through the ages. I'll put in a few examples to spice it up a bit.

People have always cared how they created their words, as words have power. The idea is that you can use them more effectively if you have power over them and know their origin and meaning. Sounds like a bit of magic to me....what my evil spells could do!

The ancient Greeks and Indians who really got nuts over discourse and word origins, were the first to seriously study the usage of words. The ancient Sanskrit linguists and grammarians of India believed it was sacred to know where your words came from. Isidore of Seville whose Etymologia was the first and best encyclopedia in Europe of first usage until the 16th century.

The 17th and 18th centuries saw the scientific study emerge with the advent of the Age of Enlightenment. The first known systematic attempt to prove the relationship between two languages on the basis of similarity was made in 1770 by Hungarian Janos Sajnovics, based on trying to find out where the hell did Hungarian come from because bugger if he knew. (Despite his great efforts, we're still not sure - might be Ugirc, maybe not?)
The modern study of linguistics and Etymology was Sir William Jones, who returned to the ancient Sanskrit studies and observed its relationship with Greek and Latin, creating the field of Indo-European linguistic studies, of which our current English relies on heavily. My favorite philosopher Nietzche also had a huge impact, saying that morals have historical and cultural origins which change over time. People like Derrida read that and thought it should apply to words as well.

There's an amazing website on the etymologies of lawyer speak. The whole study is devoted to the origin and use of property law terms. Example - accession originated from the Indo-European root word -sed which means walk or go. It first showing up in usage in the 1500s. For a lawyer I can imagine knowing this is pretty powerful stuff. I swear some of them cast spells on the judges and juries - why else would they win their cases and let criminals go free?

Now for a few fun words and their etymologies, taken from the online etymology dictionary!

One of my faves: bugger as in "bugger if he knew"

bugger (v.) to commit buggery," 1590s, from bugger (n.). Meaning "ruin, spoil" is from 1923. Related: Buggered; buggering. buggery (n.) mid-14c., "heresy," later "unnatural intercourse" with man or beast, "carnalis copula contra Naturam, & hoc vel per confusionem Specierum". See bugger (n.) + -y (1). bugger (n.)*Next: Bloody hell I need to sleep, but instead I'm going to write."sodomite," 1550s, earlier "heretic" (mid-14c.), from Medieval Latin Bulgarus "a Bulgarian" (see Bulgaria), so called from bigoted notions of the sex lives of Eastern Orthodox Christians or of the sect of heretics that was prominent there 11c. Cf. Old French bougre "Bulgarian," also "heretic; sodomite." Softened secondary sense of "fellow, chap," is in British English from mid-19c. Related: Buggerly.

Another: Bloody, as in “Bloody hell I can’t sleep”

bloody (adj.) Old Engish blodig, adjective from blod (see blood). Common Germanic, cf. Old Frisian blodich, Old Saxon blôdag, Dutch bloedig, Old High German bluotag, German blutig.It has been a British intensive swear word since at least 1676. Weekley relates it to the purely intensive use of the cognate Dutch bloed, German Blut. But perhaps it ultimately is connected with bloods in the slang sense of "rowdy young aristocrats" (see blood (n.)) via expressions such as bloody drunk "as drunk as a blood."

Partridge reports that it was "respectable" before c.1750, and it was used by Fielding and Swift, but heavily tabooed c.1750-c.1920, perhaps from imagined association with menstruation; Johnson calls it "very vulgar," and OED writes of it, "now constantly in the mouths of the lowest classes, but by respectable people considered 'a horrid word', on par with obscene or profane language."The onset of the taboo against bloody coincides with the increase in linguistic prudery that presaged the Victorian Era but it is hard to say what the precise cause was in the case of this specific word. 
Bloody Hell, you buggers! That's my new spell to curse you!
Attempts have been made to explain the term's extraordinary shock power by invoking etymology. Theories that derive it from such oaths as "By our Lady" or "God's blood" seem farfetched, however. More likely, the taboo stemmed from the fear that many people have of blood and, in the minds of some, from an association with menstrual bleeding. The term was debarred from polite society during the whole of the nineteenth century.

For more word fun, may I also suggest a really cool map of similar words in Europe? Church and Bear really get around!

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