Dictionary of Word Origins – John Ayto (1991)
I have always enjoyed learning about the sources of words and the changes in meaning and use over the centuries. As I am Puerto Rican, I was raised speaking Spanish, and when our family moved to Texas I learned the English language. I found it very interesting how English, more so than most languages, is a conglomerate of borrowed words and terminology drawn from a very wide range of languages, both dead and alive.
While many dictionaries also include small sections on etymology, this Dictionary of Word Origins shares the known origins, as well as the possible origins, of over 8,000 English words. This is in no way an exhaustive list, as the average English speaker uses around 15,000 English words. The highly literate can have over 100,000 words in their vocabulary. Sticking to just 8,000 words allows each origin to be fully explored.
This book not only provides the immediate precursor words to a specific term, but also explores the evolution of the word from its earliest source. English owes a lot to the Germanic and Latin languages, but has created something different. Sometimes words are misused, due to similarities in pronunciation. Other times the very earliest uses of a word are lost in ancient time. Basic, and seemingly universal words like mama, papa, baby, etc., seem to arrive as phonetic sounds, first uttered by developing children. The ongoing creation of the English language is a fractal thing, and it allows for the constant evolution that has seen English rise as the international language of business and politics.
Language is a tricky thing. We try to be specific in what we say, but words never have just one meaning. We try to force meaning on words, leaving us poorer for it. Knowing about a person’s history and background helps inform us greatly, and the same goes for knowing the origins of words we all use daily. Many writers discuss how they use words very carefully, seeking specific meanings and shades of definition. On the other hand, many people use words haphazardly, unaware of the many differing messages their words can actually convey. Books such as this one are a boon for anyone who loves language and the magic unlocked when we share words and ideas together.
Language, or the use of vocal/visual symbols to communicate, is humanity’s greatest invention, and allowed the development of everything we value as Human. Society, culture, learning, and history are all better served because we can all communicate through space and time using symbols. Just as I love reading a work from 100 years ago and letting the author-chosen symbols lead me to new adventures or education, I also hope that by writing and sharing these reviews of the books I read I am somehow connecting to future readers. Hopefully the internet-webs will still be around in 100 years. It is a great thrill to imagine someone reading my words in 2120 and gaining something from it. We all stand on the shoulders of all of those that came before us.
(This book can be purchased from the publisher : https://www.skyhorsepublishing.com/arcade-publishing/9781611450538/dictionary-of-word-origins/ )