Lockdown 2 is almost at an end (hopefully) but we’ll still be living in a socially distanced world for a little while. Every year my American friends who live in Surrey host a large Thanksgiving dinner for around 30 people. It’s become tradition for me to go, to enjoy good food and even better company. However, this year I will miss seeing the usual crowd and the delicious turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pies will remain unmade until next year.
Not being able to celebrate Thanksgiving hasn’t stopped me from thinking about it though and I couldn’t help but wonder where the word ‘Thanksgiving’ came from. It was first recorded in the 1530s and means to bestow a grateful thought. Although its exact origins are old English, we now associate the word so closely with the American holiday that people struggle to use it for any other purpose.
Some may look at me sideways and say that I need more interesting hobbies but as someone who loves both history and words – looking into the etymology of words is my idea of heaven! My mum and I went to see Susie Dent speak last year and I’m still using the things I learned whenever a useless fact is needed. For example, the punctuation mark :- is called the dog’s bollocks – I’ll let you work out why…
Some of my favourite etymologies are below:
- Disaster has its origins in the Italian adjective disastro meaning ill-starred and the ancient belief that stars controlled our fate. Not sure we can blame the North Star for much but I might give it a go.
- Penguin comes from the Welsh pen gwyn meaning white head. Given how close Wales and England are, it’s a little surprising more Welsh origin words aren’t in the dictionary!
- We’re a little way past Halloween now, but the word jinx that we often associate with evil magic or bad luck has its roots long before Christianity. In fact it goes all the way back to a bird in Ancient Greece that was closely linked to casting spells.
- Pandemonium comes from John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost. The palace in the middle of the chaos and bedlam of hell was named Pandemonium and takes its meaning from the Greek and Latin words meaning ‘all’ and ‘demon’.
- As Christmas draws near, it’s nearly time to watch one of my favourite Christmas movies – Scrooge – and listen to the mean, miserly character’s iconic, “Bah, humbug!” Yet it was Lord Byron, the great romantic poet of the 19th century, who we have to thank for using bah in a dismissive way. Not what he’d like to be remembered for I’m sure.
- Lastly, and considerably more topical, are the numerous words that have made their way into the Oxford English Dictionary this year including contact tracing, and WFH, together with new meanings for distancing and frontline. These new definitions clearly demonstrate how much the English language changes and evolves with the times!
Even a skim read of Stephen Fry’s Mythos makes you realise how much of our language comes from Ancient Greece. Throughout its pages, Fry constantly draws out the relationship between the names of the gods and some of our most common words (and it contains some wonderful stories!).
When we look at the world around us, we sometimes forget that knowing the origin of words can help us understand exactly what they mean. Etymology is fascinating and I’m not going to hear any arguments otherwise! If you agree with me, Susie Dent’s new book Word Perfect (which features some of my choices) is a must-have on the Christmas list.
PS marmalade, dinosaur and sarcasm all have Greek root words.