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  • Writer's pictureVyvyan Evans

How to fall in love with words

A user's guide to language, and how to appreciate it...By Vyvyan Evans

As the saying goes: love is more than skin deep. When we fall in love with someone we learn to appreciate the person beyond their appearance and first impressions. People have pasts, ethnicities and nationalities. They have friends, families, and personalities. And their characters’ are forged from unique, personal experiences. People age, they live and breathe in a social context—work, hobbies, leisure pursuits—which mark them out in individual ways. Falling in love with a person involves coming to have a deeper knowledge and appreciation of all these facets of what makes them who they are—what makes them tick.

Much like people, so it is with words too. Words have what can be likened to histories, friends, and families. Words take on new appearances in different contexts: they have what can be likened to personalities. Words take on meaning that is formed from experience, much like people. And words change over time, a form of ageing. Finally, just like people, words can only truly be appreciated by understanding the context in which they live and breathe.

In this guide, I explore the many different facets of words, to better understand what makes them tick. And in so doing, together we’ll consider steps to facilitate a deeper appreciation of words—a user’s guide on how to fall in love with them.

Like people, words have pasts

Words evolve over time, just like people. A word’s past is known as its ‘etymology’. And a word can change in many, different ways. For instance, over time a word’s meaning can shift from a broad to a narrow application. An example of this is the word queen, which around 1,000 years ago was spelt cwēn. In Old English, queen referred to any woman. Today of course, it’s meaning most often relates to a female monarch.

Words can also change in the other direction, shifting from a more specific meaning to a broader one. The commonplace word bird at an earlier point in the language referred solely to young birds, while the Old English word fugol referred to adult birds. But over time, the meaning of the word bird came to refer to both young and adults alike. Hence, fugol fell out of use, as its semantic territory had been taken over.

Words with negative meanings can come, over time to take on positive ones, such as nice. In Middle English—the 300 year period from 1150 to 1450, taking in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer—the word meant foolish. Today, nice now signals something ‘pleasant’, perhaps explaining why it’s one the most overused words in English today.

And vice versa, words with a positive meaning can come to take on a negative one. The adjective silly, once meant ‘innocent’, aggravate conveyed an ‘increase of weight’, while officious could be a applied to a ‘hard worker.’ Moreover, in the context of today’s twenty-first century culture wars, the term woke, which at an earlier point referred to someone who advocated for societal and racial equality, has now been repurposed as an insult against those perceived to promote intolerant social views while adopting a moralizing ideology.

Sometimes a word’s past is lost in the mists of time. But often, and typically, there are detailed records based on historical data. These records form dictionaries based on historical principles, known as etymological dictionaries. Today these come in various forms, ranging from weighty tomes, to paperback, pocket-sized versions, to smartphone apps. Installing one on your phone, or bookmarking an online version, and making a habit of checking out five words a day represents a useful way to appreciate the past lives of even the most common words. And you could also set yourself the challenge of trying to figure out which of the four types of change, described above, accounts for the words you’ve selected.

Like people, words have ethnicities and nationalities

Did you know that the word shampoo in fact comes from Hindi, and means ‘to massage’? And the good old English word bank, as in a financial institution, in fact comes from the Italian banca via the French banque. In fact, around eighty per cent of English words come from other languages, and around 350 languages are represented.

Linguists refer to this process of one language taking words from another as ‘borrowing.’ However, in the case of language, the loan is permanent. For most of us, shampoo is today, as English as it gets—we’re not giving it back!

The top five languages from which English has borrowed words are Latin (e.g., opium, dominatrix, religion), French (e.g., art, dance, government), Greek (e.g., democracy, comedy, and psyche), German (e.g., noodle, lager, delicatessen), and Italian (e.g., opera, piano and latte).

A dictionary provides details of a word’s meaning, its pronunciation, usage, and its origin. Good dictionaries even provide the first attested usage in the language, with an example and first known year of use. Hence, a dictionary is broader in coverage than the etymological dictionary discussed above. Any good dictionary, whether a physical desk dictionary or an online version can be used, in conjunction with or instead of an etymological dictionary to identify whether a word is native English, or a borrowing.

As an exercise, for the five words selected in the previous subsection, try looking up their source language, and if possible any differences between their meaning in English from the original. Doing this for five words a day will soon lead to a deeper appreciation of the rich cultural heritage of our ‘”English” words, and how other languages from around the world have and continue to influence and shape English.

Like people, words have what can be thought of as friends

Words group together in often predictable ways. These “friendship” patterns are known as ‘collocations’. For instance, words such as rancid, stale, sour and rotten all relate to foodstuffs that have gone off. Yet, they all hang out with specific foodstuffs. Butter is rancid, while bread is stale, wine and milk can be sour, while meat and vegetables can be rotten. In short, these words go together with specific types of foodstuffs. Butter cannot be sour, just as meat cannot be stale, although the bacterial processes that render the foodstuffs inedible is broadly similar.

Another type of dictionary is a dictionary of collocations. This provides a listing of the ways words group together to form phrases. In English, we have strong wind, yet heavy rain, we can be fast asleep, but wide (not fast!) awake. For the five daily words selected earlier, try cross-referencing each of these with its main friendship patterns. See whether you can establish patterns in how your five daily words group together.

Like people, words have families

While words have what might be thought of as prototypical or salient meanings, they also often have a range of related meanings, that have grown out of the original meaning over time. For instance, the word queen, while most saliently referring to a female monarch, can also refer to the consort of a King. It can also refer to a woman who is preeminent in some respect, such as movie queen, beauty queen, or when referring to one’s female partner as my queen. The term can also be applied to a gay man, especially if flamboyant or camp. Each of these ‘senses’ of queen are related. They form a category or family of senses that are all semantically-related. On first glance, you may not even notice that they convey different distinct meanings.

On one estimate, English words have on average 2.5 distinct, but semantically related meanings per word. This familial relationship between a word and its distinct senses is not to be confused with words that have the same form, but are otherwise unrelated. For instance, the word bank, as in the side of a river, is a word that is native English, while the borrowed word bank, meaning financial institution is completely unrelated. These are two distinct words that just happen to share the same spelling and pronunciation.

To identify the distinct semantically-related senses belonging to any word, use a good dictionary. Underneath each ‘headword’, a dictionary lists the different senses that belong to the word’s family. For instance, the riverbank meaning of bank has a number of semantically distinct yet related senses. These include a long pile or heap (as in a bank of earth, or clouds), physical geography (as in a slope bordering a river or stream), a broad elevation in the seafloor around which water is relatively shallow, in coal mining, the surface around the mouth of a shaft, in aeronautics, the lateral inclination of an aircraft, and finally the cushion of the table in wooden cue and ball games such as snooker, billiards and pool.

As an exercise, take the five daily words selected above. Use your preferred dictionary to identify the distinct senses that belong to the headword. Then, if you’re feeling curious, compare the etymology for each. Using your etymology dictionary, try to establish which sense was first used in the language. Was this what your intuition tells you is today’s most prototypical meaning? For instance, the English preposition before has as one of its earliest ¨historical meanings ‘in front of’, as in the old nursery rhyme: Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before a king. Yet for many people today, it is the temporal sense of before, as in: Monday comes before Tuesday, which is most prototypical.

Like people, words have personalities

Words, like people, have many facets, which show up in different guises and in different contexts. Consider the word France in the following sentences: France is a beautiful country; France played against the USA; France voted agains the measure in the United Nations. voted against the measure in the United Nations.

On first blush, you might be forgiven for thinking that France means the same thing in each. But upon closer inspection, you’ll see that the actual interpretation of France in each is guided by the context in which the word is being used. In the first example, the phrase beautiful country, leads us to a ‘France-as-geographical landmass’ interpretation. In the second, played against the USA, leads to the interpretation of ‘athletes working as a team in a sport representing the entire population of France’. And in the third sentence, voted against the measure in the United Nations, leads to the interpretation of ‘political apparatus of France’.

These interpretations are guided by the specific context in which the word is being used. They are not distinct senses, as discussed above. Rather, we might think of them as word ‘sub-senses’, that derive in and through contexts of language use. Sub-senses of this kind are not listed in dictionaries, or at least not usually. This is because there are nearly as many sub-senses as there are ways to use any give word. So how then do we figure out what a sub-sense of any given word is?

Like people, words can only be truly understood against their usual backdrop

Just as people can best be appreciated in the context of their lives (their jobs, habits, leisure activities, and so on), so the sub-senses of words (a word’s personality) only truly makes sense within the body of knowledge that lies, like an iceberg, hidden beneath its surface.

When we use words, we are using them as shorthand representation for a large body of ‘encyclopaedic knowledge’ that they refer to. For instance, our knowledge of France, built up over a lifetime of experience (hearing about France on the news, perhaps learning the language, visiting on vacation, following international sports competitions, and so on), means that you and I possess a vast body of knowledge, against which we can use the word.

Word sub-senses arise precisely because any word is applied to this encyclopaedic knowledge. And inevitably, only one small part of this knowledge is relevant, at any time, in any given context. You and I know that France has a particular geography, engages in international sports of various kinds, and has a particular type of political system. And each instance of the word France zeros in on just this aspect of the total knowledge we possess for France, pulling out that segment which is relevant.

Each day, for one of the words selected above, try a thought experiment. Create three sentences using the word, in strikingly different contexts. Now try to figure out the sub-sense of each use of the word. To do this, list all the different encyclopaedic aspects of knowledge you have for the word, that you are drawing upon to come up with the context-specific sub-sense.

Like people, words are forged from experience

Like people, words can be sometimes difficult to read or interpret. This is because they are forged through experience, which can be haphazard, and which forges something unique.

Take, for instance, the word headwind. A headwind is a wind that is opposed to the course of a moving object, such as sailing ship or an aircraft. Yet, it is commonly also applied in more abstract contexts such as politics or economics, to describe conditions that inhibit political or economic (as opposed to physical) progress. This, of course, is a metaphorical usage of headwind.

Metaphor is remarkably common, and enables us to use words that are grounded in concrete, often physical experiences, to apply to more abstract domains. In this way, we apply our knowledge of what we know about concrete actions and events, such as moving and interacting in space with physical objects, and apply it to things unseen, the more abstract about which we know less.

Perhaps the most abstract domain of them all is time. We sense the passage of time in the seasons, and the ageing of our reflection in the mirror. But time is not something you can touch or move around in, as we can the objects we move around in our homes and places of work. Hence, we use words, from our realm of physical experience, to describe these more abstract matters. And in so doing we use metaphor.

While you might be forgiven that metaphor is a colouful conceit, used by poets and masters of literature, in fact it is something quotidian and so hackneyed you may be forgiven for not noticing it. As it turns out, metaphor is a central mechanism of everyday human thought. Take the expression: Christmas is fast approaching. Christmas is a particular festival, a temporal event. It isn’t something that can literally approach fast, like a car. Similarly, when I say, Easter is just around the corner, no one is fooled that by peaking around the corner they’ll see an actual Easter bunny. It’s simply that we use words that derive from physical, concrete experience, metaphorically to describe more unknowable experiences, and thereby enlist aspects of concrete experience to better describe the more abstract.

For the five words selected above, see whether you can come up with usages of these words to describe something more abstract. Then figure out what the abstract domain is, and what the concrete, source domain is. For instance, selecting the word see, when I say, I see what you mean, I’m using the concrete domain of vision (see), to get a better grip on the abstract domain of understanding (what you mean).

Like people, words age over time

Just like people grow older, and more decrepit over time, so too do words. As words age they can shrink (as sometimes people do), or bits can drop off, leading to shortening, as in Good be with you, shortened into goodbye. Or words can simply fall out of use, of form of word death, as in the example earlier of fugol (the former word for ‘adult bird’).

This process of ageing can also show up in the way in which a word is pronounced, or spelled. And sometimes the spelling provides a clue as to how the word’s sound pattern has changed over time. For instance, the word knight reflects a pronunciation of several hundred years ago, which is no longer how we say the word today. The initial kn consonant cluster used to be pronounced in English, but no longer exists in the language. Similarly, the ght cluster reflects a sound that also no longer exists in standard English.

For the five words selected, use you etymological dictionary to uncover the way the spelling and pronunciation of the word has changed over time.

Key points:

1. Collect five words per day to investigate further, based on words you overhear, read or use yourself in everyday conversation. Try and select words from different parts of speech (noun, adjective, preposition, verb, adverb, and so on—any good dictionary identifies which part of speech a given word belongs to). Should you need inspiration, sign up to receive the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day (it’s completely free), here.

2. Download to your device, bookmark on your computer, or obtain a physical version of: a good dictionary, an etymological dictionary and a dictionary of collocations.

3. Check out the etymology of each word (the word’s “past life”)

4. Using either your dictionary, or etymological dictionary, uncover which language your daily words have been borrowed from (and if possible the meaning in the original language). In some cases, where the words are native to English, the dictionary will show the presumed historical source (as Old English—also known as Anglo Saxon—itself developed from languages spoken earlier in parts of northern Europe and Scandinavia).

5. Next, for each of your five words, use your dictionary to figure out the senses for each—the distinct, but related meanings that make up the word’s “family”.

6. Now, create three sentences using each word in strikingly different contexts. Try to figure out the ‘sub-sense’ of each use of the word. To do this, list all the different encyclopaedic aspects of knowledge you have for the word, that you are drawing upon to come up with the context-specific sub-sense.

7. For the five daily words selected, see whether you can come up with usages of these words to describe something more abstract. Then figure out what the abstract domain is, and what the concrete, source domain is.

Learn more:

Of course, we have been discussing freestanding words. But words group together into other established units. There are, of course, idioms, such as: She kicked the bucket, He hit the roof, She jumped down my throat, and bend over backwards. There are phrasal verbs, in which a verb is paired with a ‘particle’ conveying a particular idea, such as to fill in, or to fill out. Hence we can fill in a form, and fill it out, but we can’t fill it up, one needs a vehicle for that! Finally, there are established multiword phrases that form established units, and describe particular ideas, such as goblin mode, which was Oxford University Dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2022.

To challenge yourself, take examples of idioms, phrasal verbs, and multiword phrases that you come across. For this you may also need a dictionary of phrasal verbs, and a dictionary of idioms. Each day, look up the origins of each. For instance, try looking up the sinister meaning behind the name of the 1980s pop group: Spandau Ballet.

However, on occasion as in the case of kick the bucket, or nosy parker, you’ll find there are alternate, plausible explanations that have been proposed by experts. In such cases, we have to accept that in the absence of clear, written evidence of early attested usages, we are dealing with the messiness of language, which lives, breathes, changes and dies, just like people.

Links & books:

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online: This is arguably the accepted authority on the English language. It provides a guide to the meaning, history and pronunciation of over 600,000 words, including examples of use over the course of 1,000 years of English language history. You can access the OED free of charge via a public or university library. Or you can subscribe for a (fairly) modest annual fee.

Metaphors we Live by. 2003. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. A slim book, with lively, highly readable chapters, explaining the everyday ways in which we use metaphor in language.

A History of English Words. 2000. Geoffrey Hughes. A comprehensive guide to the evolution of the English vocabulary, including illustrative quotations from literature. More technical in nature than the other books listed here.

Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. 2015. Seth Lerer. A popular treatment of the development of English vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and spelling, from Beowulf to Eminem.

Because Internet. Understanding the New Rules of Language. 2021. Gretchen McCulloch. The New York Times best-selling overview of the evolution of English in the digital age.

The Crucible of Language. 2015. Vyvyan Evans. A popular science overview of how language and mind conspire to create meaning; covering metaphor, vocabulary, grammar and the evolution of language itself.

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