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Roots/origins of words - does anyone else do this?

(55 Posts)
Witzend Thu 07-May-20 11:17:33

A dd and I, both linguistically minded, often used to amuse ourselves by looking up words in a very fat dictionary that gave origins/first noted usage, etc. I still do now and then.

One I particularly remember was ‘acre’. This came about because a Swedish friend’s son who’d got a job in London was coming to stay with us. Having never met him I had to wait at Heathrow with his name on a placard - it was Aker, with a little circle thing over the A.

I later asked him whether it meant anything in Swedish - yes, it meant ‘field’. So I thought, aha, I wonder if it’s related to ‘acre’? Sure enough, it was - the Anglo Saxon version meant the amount of land that could be ploughed by 2 oxen in a day.

Not only that, but there are very similar words with the same meaning in Dutch and German, not to mention Latin and Greek, all going back to an Indo-European root shared by Sanskrit.

Another one I like is riff-raff, which in Anglo Saxon apparently meant ‘sweepings of rags’!
I hope I’m not the only one who finds such things fascinating!

MawB Thu 07-May-20 11:36:52

Acker of course is a German word for field - as you say, an easy connection.
We have many synonyms in English, I often think more than other languages and as a rule of thumb you can often trace the origins of synonyms back to Latin/Norman French roots and Anglo-Saxon /Germanic roots where the “grander” word will trace back to Norman French/Latin and the common or everyday word to Anglo-Saxon/Germanic roots
Eg “church” -Kirk in Scotland <Germanic “Kirche”
“Cathedral” (Fr cathédrale) and “ecclesiastical” (Latin ecclesiastical)
Even the humble chair or in medieval times a stool being what the peasantry sat on
Stool < German Stuhl and chair <fr chaise
It makes sense when you remember who the conquerors were in 1066 and what nationality the court and the people who ruled us were.

MawB Thu 07-May-20 11:38:10

Sorry predictive text that should be Latin ecclesia

Fennel Thu 07-May-20 11:45:53

I often look up origins of words too. I was wondering if 'acre'
had any connection to 'hectare' as there are common letters. But it seems hectares are metric measurements whereas acres are imperial.

V3ra Thu 07-May-20 11:50:30

One I always remember from my college linguistics class is the Dutch for frog: kikker 🐸

TerriBull Thu 07-May-20 11:56:33

I'm interested to know where words derived from, I've read 60% of our words are from French and therefore Latin based and the other 40% vestiges of Anglo Saxon. Along the way acquiring words from other cultures particularly when we were a presence in India, bungalow, jodhpur, thugee and others. I think I Googled what words are still in our language which would have been Celtic, there were a few although I imagine the Welsh language may have more. Similarly, and because there have been quite a few Danish or indeed Scandinavian tv series, there are words that are so recognisable, particularly those that are more prevalent in Scotland and northern England such as bairn, but then the Danes were more prolific in northern Britain when they settled here.

vampirequeen Thu 07-May-20 12:00:00

I love finding out about words. We have such a rich language because we've adapted to immigration and conquest and seconded words to our language. We added even more words such as bungalow and shampoo due to the Empire. So we have a wonderful mix of Latin, Greek, French, Scandinavian, Anglo Saxon. Irish, Scottish and just about everywhere else.

Elegran Thu 07-May-20 12:01:41

You can trace the history of successive waves of invasion and colonisation by the words they brought into the language, particularly placenames.

There are names ending in thorpe (hamlet or small village) or --garth (orchard) from the Norsemen, or starting with pit from the picts, or --chester or --caster (castle) from the Romans.

Elegran Thu 07-May-20 12:03:45

Those words should not have been crossed out! I was trying to add dashes at the start of words with various ending and forgot that a double dash would be misunterpreted- I'll try again.

Elegran Thu 07-May-20 12:05:03

There are names ending in -thorpe (hamlet or small village) or -garth (orchard) from the Norsemen, or -chester or -caster (castle) from the Romans, or starting with pit- from the picts.

Ellianne Thu 07-May-20 12:08:46

I love words and etymology. I wish I had paid far more attention when I did my degree in French and German. We studied language back to medieval times which I thought was a bit boring then.
The word kid/s is often frowned upon when talking about children, but it comes from German Kind/Kinder. Nothing to do with goats!

Nannarose Thu 07-May-20 12:09:12

Yes, I love it - and similarly, the origins of sayings. I am also fascinated by how language evolves. I have said before that my DH thinks I say a lot of olderAmericanisms - I grew up near an airbase and think I must have picked them up!

JackyB Thu 07-May-20 12:17:49

I find it fascinating, too. I have subscribed to's Word Of The Day which gives very detailed étymologies.

I have always said that everything goes back to one original word and, reading those explanations, I sometimes believe it. It's amazing which words are related and particularly interesting if you know German and Latin (and Greek)

Lucca Thu 07-May-20 12:26:45

Oh yes preaching to the converted here Witzend. I love words languages grammar.... my students used to be amazed at how excited I could become by complex grammar in Italian or word order in German etc etc and were bemused to hear I kept a grammar book by my bed.....
I seem to remember years ago listening to something on the radio about an experiment where they people from remote part of Scandinavia meeting people from Hebridean or Shetland islands and being able to understand each other ?

Alexa Thu 07-May-20 12:27:09

Witzend, etymology is one of my favourite studies especially place names.

I also like to try to find connections between Sanscrit and modern languages. My latest fad is Romany and how close it is to Hindi and Sanscrit.

Witzend Thu 07-May-20 12:28:44

The Scots and Northern England ‘bairn’ must surely come from the Swedish (and I dare say other Scandi) ‘barn’ (child - think it has the little circle thing over the a). Via Old Norse, presumably.

I keep a book of English place names in the car, and as long as dh is driving, I often look up names en route. If I’d ever done a degree in English (I preferred foreign lingos then ) I’d have loved to do a place-names module. So noticeable how many northern place names have Viking-origin elements.

The name of my own immediate SW London area is from a Celtic root! So relatively few of these in much of England, except of course for Cornwall.

Alexa Thu 07-May-20 12:31:19

Bairn sounds like born or bore as in bore a child

watermeadow Thu 07-May-20 12:33:58

I’m intrigued by simple words, usually one syllable, for all the basic things our distant ancestors named.
They looked around and saw Sky, Sun, Moon, Star. Food, Drink, Water. Hurt, Dead. Come, Go, Walk,Run. Sleep, Wake. Head, Leg, Arm, Foot, Hand, Eye, Mouth, Nose. Cry, Speak, Shout, Sing. Leaf, Tree, Rock, Hill, Path, Home. Etc Etc.
I wonder if you could write a story using only these old words?

rosecarmel Thu 07-May-20 12:39:33

The first thing I thought of when I saw this thread was Michael Constantine- smile Origin of my thought: My Big Fat Greek Wedding-

What's the origin of the word Windex?

Elegran Thu 07-May-20 13:26:53

JackyB You "have always said that everything goes back to one original word" In 1493, King James IV of Scotland wanted to know which was the earliest language, from which all others were descended, so he arranged for two newborn babies to be isolated with a deaf and dumb wet-nurse on the island of Inchkeith in the Forth where she was kept supplied with necessities, but the babies never met anyone else, hoping to find out what language they developed. It was reported that their first words were "eema" - so he deduced that the first language of mankind was Hebrew.

Of course, that was also the only noise that their deaf/mute nurse could make, which may have influenced their speech grin. I also wonder how the nurse coped with being isolated with two demanding babies on a small island until they were old enough to talk!

MawB Thu 07-May-20 14:38:47

What's the origin of the word Windex?

It seems to be a brand name for a brand of window cleaner - so like most brand names, a made up word
Windolene, Dettol, Zoflora, Jim/Cif.
Or do you know otherwise Rosecarmel ?

MawB Thu 07-May-20 14:41:00

The word bairn comes from the Old English word bearn, a “descendant,” and is related to the verb to bear, as in bearing children.

silverlining48 Thu 07-May-20 15:09:25

I find words and their derivation endlessly fascinating and always enjoy just looking through dictionaries. I understand a couple of foreign languages reasonably well, with a very basic smattering of one or two others so find the connections between foreign words and with English interesting.
If that makes sense.
A knowledge of Latin is very useful, but it wasn’t taught at my school. We were supposed to ‘know our place’ which was office, shop or factory, but that might require a different post.

giulia Thu 07-May-20 15:15:25

I teach English as a second language and find explaining structure of words intrigues my students no-end and also helps them memorise unusual words. When I ask them to explain the word "breakfast", they shrug and say something like "quick break" and are astonished when I explain it derives from the phrase "to break one's fast". Thus they also learn "fast" as a noun/verb.

The one I like best is when they want to know the difference between to overhear and to eavesdrop. They love the fact that eavedropping (which is naughty) involves standing under where the roof eaves drip in order to listen in at a person's window (in the days before gutters), whereas to overhear is merely accidental and innocent.

giulia Thu 07-May-20 15:19:57

It's amusing how my Italian school-age students improve their translation abilities when they pass from basic grammar to literature: so many of those "BIG" words they read stem from Latin origin as against the short germacic/saxon etc., words which are mostly used while teaching basic grammar. They are usually delighted with themselves!