Etymons are the heart of etymology. The root meaning of etymology is “finding the underlying’’ or “true meaning of words.” The root of etymology is Greek etumos, “real, true.” From this was derived etumon, “true or literal sense of a word” (acquired by English in the 16th century as etymon).

Post-classical grammarians came to use etymon in the sense “root from which a particular word was derived,” as a result of which modern etymology, the study of etymons, deals with their history rather than their meanings.

—John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins.Arcade Publishing; New York, 1990. 208.

Words are the fossils of language, and the DNA of history. English, more than any other language, is adaptive and acquisitive. We have ransacked the vocabulary of every language we have come into contact with, taking the words and phrases that fulfill unmet gaps in our language, and making them our own. In an era when some foolish souls propose "English only" legislation, English as pilfered, filched and outright stolen great swathes of words from, well everyone, and everywhere. As James Nicholl noted twenty years ago:
The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

James D. Nicoll rec.arts.sf-lovers 1990-05-15

Words are the fossils of language, and the DNA of history. These are posts about words, and language and rhetoric and meaning.

  • Etymons


    One year while working as volunteer staff for the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop on Martha’s Vineyard we discovered a local farm, Morning Glory farm, with locally grown produce, including fresh cranberries from nearby Cape Cod Massachusetts, and Carver (in Eastern Massachusetts), both places where commercial cranberry bogs are carefully cultivated, and the wild native cranberry still flourishes in marshes and bogs. Cranberries are so much a part of Eastern Massachusetts today, that there’s even a cranberry trail to follow, including currently cultivated cranberry bogs on a number of farms. There are currently about 14,000 acres devoted to cranberry cultivation in Massachusetts, but the cranberry is also commercially grown (and still…

  • Etymons


    Mistletoe, while celebrated at Christmas for reasons that are, historically speaking, distant enough to be unattributable to a specific cause, is unfairly held in disdain the rest of the year. The green small-leaved white-berried plant, dismissed as a parasite most of the year, is, at Christmas, gathered in small bunches, woven with ribbons, and suspended above the heads of unsuspecting, and sometimes, unconsenting adults. The idea being that adults caught beneath the Mistletoe are compelled to kiss; traditionally, a berry was then removed from the Mistletoe. When the berries were gone, so were the kisses. The Mistletoe plant itself is really not appreciated; it is not a true parasite in…

  • Top of the Hochdorf prince's bronze cauldron showing an ornamental lions


    Mead is essentially honey wine, made by fermenting watered honey, and sometimes, adding additional flavors like spices or fruit juice. Mead was a fairly popular alcoholic beverage in the European Middle ages, and earlier. Mead residue has been found in vessels in Celtic ritual burials, and even in the tomb of King Midas of Phrygia, c. 740-700 B.C. Mead is so closely associated with the Anglo-Saxon senses of community and conviviality that the central building for community ceremony and conviviality is the mead-hall (Old English meduseld, borrowed by Tolkien as the name of King Théoden’s great hall at Edoras). So important was mead to the Anglo-Saxons that the word mead…

  • Etymons

    Gorse, Furze, and Whin

    A few years ago, an acquaintance emailed me in extreme frustration because he’d looked up furze, a word he encountered while reading a mystery set in Scotland, in a dictionary. The definition for furze was “whin; gorse.” When he looked up whin and gorse their entries referred him to furze. I’ve had similar and equally annoying experiences with dictionaries, and immediately understood his frustration. I promised him I’d post about all three words. Gorse, as the AHD notes, is Any of several spiny shrubs of the genus Ulex, especially U. europaeus, native to Europe and having fragrant yellow flowers and black pods. Also called furze, whin. Ulex europaeus from Ayrshire, Scotland…

  • Etymons


    The Greeks called him “a poet,” which name has, as the most excellent, gone through other languages. It comes of this word poiein, which is “to make”; wherein I know not whether by luck or wisdom we Englishmen have met with the Greeks in calling him “a maker.” Which name how high and incomparable a title it is, I had rather were known by marking the scope of other sciences than by any partial allegation (Sidney Defence of Poesie). Sidney is absolutely correct when he notes that the English word poet derives from the Greek poiein, to create. Our modern English poet comes to us via Middle English, from Old French poete,…

  • Etymons

    Memento Mori

    The phrase memento mori is usually used in the context of a literary topos, that is a commonplace, or a motif in art. The New Latin (i.e. not Classical, but late Medieval or Early Modern Latin) is derived from Latin mementō, singular imperative of meminisse, “to remember’ + Latin morī, “to die.” Memento mori is conventionally translated as “remember that you have to die,” or the even less literal “remember your death” (AHD).” Death Comes to the Banquet Table Giovanni Martinelli (1600–1659) Image: Wikimedia commons Remember here has a cautionary connotation of “don’t forget.” The driving idea behind the tag (and the topos) is that all creatures die; we should…

  • Etymons

    Buckles, Cobblers, Grunts and Slumps

    It’s blueberry season in Maine. The abundance of blueberries got me thinking about my mom’s blueberry buckle recipe. What, pray tell, is a buckle? Buckles Fruit buckles are very much associated in my mind with New England, but my quick check of southern recipe collections suggest that that’s not the case historically. Southern recipes for buckles feature apples and plums Almond-Plum Buckle recipe rather than blueberries Blueberry Buckle Recipe. A buckle, for the curious, is an old-fashioned style of single layer cake, typically cooked in a flat pan, round or square (rather than , and includes fruit and streusel-style crumb topping. Some recipes call for mixing the fruit into the…

  • Etymons


    Asterisk is one of those words in English that began as a noun, but is often used as a verb, with the meaning “To mark with an asterisk” (AHD s.v. asterisk). An asterisk is: n. 1. A star-shaped figure (*) used chiefly to indicate an omission, a reference to a footnote, or an unattested word, sound, or affix.2. Mathematics A symbol used to indicate multiplication, as in 2 * 3 = 6. Etymologically speaking, asterisk (present in Middle English) derives from Late Latin asteriscus, from Greek asteriskos, diminutive of astēr, “star.” Asterisk, Aster, and Star are all derived from the Proto Indo-European root *ster-3. Our practice of using an asterisk to identify…

  • Etymons


    If you know anyone from Eastern Montana, you likely have heard them refer to coulees. In Montana and most of the Western U.S., a coulee is “A deep gulch or ravine with sloping sides, often dry in summer” (AHD s.v. coulee). While coulee means different things in other places (a stream bed or even a bayou or canal in Louisiana and Southern Mississippi, a valley with hills on either side, or a lava flow), I want to focus on the Montana definition of coulee. Writer Kari Lynn Dell, novelist and Montana resident defines a coulee this way: It’s smaller than a valley, wider than a ravine, deeper and longer than a…

  • Etymons


    The word Welsh can refer to the Celtic language of Wales, called Cymric in that language, or it can be an adjective referring to  items related to “Wales or its people, language or culture” (AHD s.v. Welsh. The etymology of Welsh is interesting. Etymologically, the word Welsh entered Modern English via the Middle English Walische, derived from Old English Wælisc, from Old English Wealh, “foreigner.” The plural form of wealh, wealas, gave us the Modern English word Wales. There’s a certain irony that the Germanic-speaking invaders refer to the previous inhabitants of Britain, the Celtic speaking ancestors of modern Welsh, as “foreigners,” but to the English, the people “over there,”…