Thanks, Nienke, for your thoughtful announcement of my visit. You made me feel welcome at your remarkable website.
I’m the kind of writer who likes a distraction. Could be the smell of coffee in the other room, or a “dump your microwave oven” urban myth that plops onto my desktop. No surprise, therefore, that as I began typing this piece about words origins, I allowed my attention to be drawn to your Tip of the Day: “Always take the attitude of a learner in your writing and be open to new insights from any source.” I hope it won’t seem that I’m malingering if I comment on this sage advice before I get down to business.
In the 1990s, I enrolled in UCLA’s screenwriting program. At age 51 I thought I knew everything about cranking out scripts. I just wanted to meet producers so I could sell my work. But in my first class I discovered how much I had to learn about story structure. That humbling experience confirms the wisdom of your tip about being curious.
Now about words: In high school, I could take the study of etymology or leave it. Actually, I was more into leaving it. But as the years passed, I gradually became intrigued by word histories. I even began collecting doublets: word pairs that at first seem unrelated and yet are etymological kissing cousins. Examples include: anger & angina, automobile & mob, chaos & gasoline, computer & reputation, flatulence & inflation, candid & candidate. And my favorite: rectitude & rectum.
Such pairs—“words of a feather”— inspired me to write mini essays for my own amusement, especially when I had a pressing deadline. Take, for “excrement & secret”:
“Three may keep a secret, “wrote Ben Franklin, “if two of them are dead.” Ben’s witty observation points to the etymology of secret, which traces to the Latin se meaning “apart” and cretus meaning “separate.” A “secret” is knowledge kept apart from others. Hence, a secretary’s first function is to guard the boss’s private information. (Apparently, a few secretaries working for the British royal family never got the message.)
But what has this to do with excrement? Here’s the poop: The ex is Latin for “out” and the cre goes back to our old friend cretus, “separate.” Thus excrement refers to something “separated out.” Although in this case we’re not talking about information, it’s still a private matter, definitely hush hush.
If you want a loftier example, consider: “cosmos & cosmetics”:
The ancient Greeks named the universe kosmos, meaning “order.” Their belief that order is the key to beauty gave rise to the related word kosmetikos: the art of creating personal beauty.
The English version—cosmetics—developed around the time Isaac Newton published his theory about the orderly forces binding the cosmos.
Ironically, in this same period, the anti-adornment crowd made an effort to enact laws criminalizing the use of cosmetics for the purpose of seducing innocent victims into matrimony.
I had no plans for publishing these stories until an agent called saying that she knew an editor who was looking for a humorous word book. Did I have anything? Absolutely, only most of it was gathering digital dust on old computers. Six months later, Words of a Feather was published, which seems weird to me because I’ve spent years unsuccessfully peddling some of my manuscripts, and here came a contract out of the blue. The lesson? Even if you’re not an environmentalist, do not send your old computers to the landfill.
Lest I give the impression that etymology is merely an entertainment, let me end with a serious point. Sometimes when I’m writing, I’ll find myself staring at a word that, while I’ve used it my whole life, now seems unfamiliar.
If I look up the word’s etymology, I often have an epiphany. Here’s an example. Recently I was finishing a hilarious (don’t I hope) coming-of-age story. I viewed my protagonist Dan as a hero although he doesn’t see himself capable of accomplishing heroic deeds. Indeed, through most of the book, he wants to run away.
One day,—like Dan—I was avoiding my destiny and looking out the window rather than typing the story. The thought occurred to me that maybe Dan wasn’t a hero. Worse, I felt that I no longer even knew what a hero was. I could give the dictionary definition, but I had no emotional connection.
Curious, I looked up the etymology of hero at my favorite online etymology source (www.etymonline.com), and I discovered that hero traces back to an ancient Indo-European word meaning “protector.” Bingo! In a scene that I knew was coming, Dan has the chance to protect his town—spiritually speaking. (I admit, that doesn’t sound funny, but trust me: the moment in the story is both spiritual and funny. Or don’t trust me; buy the book when it comes out… if it comes out.)
What I’m suggesting is that if you find yourself in a word crisis, or if you simply wish to understand more deeply writing terms such as character, sentence, dialogue, climax or destiny, take a journey into etymologyland.
I used etymology today while writing this essay. I wasn’t sure that the piece would work out and that worried me. But then I learned that essay comes from the French word essai meaning “try” or “attempt.” This I have done.
Thanks for reading. And if wish, please ask me questions. But note: question relates etymologically to inquisition. So go easy.