BONUS CHAPTER from Spellbinding Sentences
A brief guide to the history of the English language and the joys of exploring where our words come from.
Where Do Our Words Come From?
A great writer will never seek to impress by a mere display of rare or difficult words; but a great writer generally has a fairly large vocabulary, because great writers are interested in words and collect them, thus acquiring a store of words from which they can draw to express themselves more vividly than can the rest of us.
—Marjorie Boulton, The Anatomy of Prose
Many writers want to add words to their vocabulary. One enjoyable way to do that is to learn something about the history of words, a subject known as “etymology.”
A word’s history is one of the sources of its power. To know where our words come from, then, is to be able to make use of this particular power. The more familiar we are with the history of our words, the more skilled we can become at making choices among them.
Experts have written fat books on the history of English words. I am certainly no expert, so here I will give you only a brief overview. If, like me, you find this subject fascinating, you can find more details in the books listed in the footnotes.
There are three main ways in which we get our words: we inherit them; we borrow them from other languages; and we make them up. Let’s explore these ways one at a time.
WHERE DO OUR WORDS COME FROM? 1: WE INHERIT THEM
As people who speak and write English, we are the beneficiaries of an astonishing linguistic heritage. English is a very word-rich language, with hundreds of thousands of words in common use. But English has not been around forever. How did it come into being?
Our Linguistic Inheritance: The Anglo-Saxons
The traditional story about the beginnings of the English language goes something like this: The originators of the English language didn’t start out living in England at all. They were Germanic warrior tribes who had been settled for some time in what we now call northern Germany and Denmark, right across the North Sea from Britain. These people were among those the Romans called “barbarians,” meaning that, by Roman standards, they were uncivilized.
The Romans had made what we now know as England (they called it Britain) an outpost of their Empire, conquering the resident Celtic peoples. But by the middle of the fifth century the Empire was crumbling, and the Roman troops were withdrawn from Britain, leaving the Celts (many of whom had adopted Roman ways) undefended against marauders from the northern part of the island. The Celts needed help, and they looked to the Germanic tribes of northern Germany and Denmark to get it. The men of these tribes were well-known as fierce warriors; in fact, it’s likely that some of them had served in the Roman army in Britain.
While they were good at warfare, these men were also farmers, and it’s easy to imagine them (as English writer Rosemary Sutcliff did in her young adult book, The Lantern Bearers) listening eagerly to tales told by those who had seen the green and fertile earth of Britain and thinking what an improvement such land would be over the inhospitable fields of their present home. So when the Celtic leader, Vortigern, made his offer—Come help us get rid of these raiders from the North and you can settle down here—many of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, as these particular Germanic people were called, must have jumped at the chance.
With apparent ease they routed the northern raiders and began to settle in the eastern parts of England. Not content with the small areas the Celts had given them, they pushed further inland, driving out many of the resident Celts, who retreated into Wales and Cornwall.
And so, by invitation and by bloodshed, a new language arrived in England. Most likely this language had several dialects, or local variations, whose differences increased as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes spread out across eastern England. They probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands, at most, and they tended to live in small groups, isolated by distance from each other. Some Celts remained, and even some Romans.
Though this story is told over and over again in books on the history of the English language, not everyone still believes it. One who doesn’t is British archeologist Francis Pryor, whose 2004 book, Britain A.D., marshaled considerable archeological evidence to support his claim that that after the Romans departed Britain in 410 A.D., the life and culture of the resident Romanized Britons (or Celts) did not collapse. Pryor maintains that the Britons had been in communication with, and traded with, the peoples of Northern Europe for a long time, and that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes settled gradually in Britain, not all at once in a mass migration/invasion.
However the Anglo-Saxons first arrived, though, as they put down roots in England, they also established the roots of the English language. “Anyone who speaks or writes English today,” say the authors of The Story of English, “is using accents, words and grammar which, with several dramatic modifications, go all the way back to the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons.” Unfortunately, we have only a partial record of Anglo-Saxon words, for the Anglo-Saxons belonged to a culture in which laws, history, and literature were all handed down orally. It wasn’t until a few hundred years had passed that some of what they preserved in words was written down, and many of the manuscripts from that period have been lost.
As a result, no one can ever be sure that we know exactly how Anglo-Saxon was spoken, or even all the words in daily use. When scholars talk about Old English (another term for Anglo-Saxon), they are talking about a vocabulary of only several thousand words. But these words are our most familiar and essential ones, the bedrock of our language.
We might assume that since Anglo-Saxon was spoken such a long time ago—over 1500 years—its vocabulary would be completely foreign to us. In fact, the reverse is true. The one hundred most common words in English are Anglo-Saxon, and eighty-three of the next hundred. As writer Mervyn Bragg says, “Our everyday conversation is still founded on and funded by Old English.” We can’t build sentences in English without using Anglo-Saxon words like the, is, you. The Germanic words in English include most of our simplest, most basic words. They include names for body parts, like arm and head; family terms (father, mother, brother, sister); everyday verbs like have, be, come, go, look, know; pronouns; and most of our prepositions (to, for, in, etc.) and conjunctions (and, but, if, etc.) without which we couldn’t put sentences together. You might want to consider, the next time you use one of these words, that it is hundreds of years old!
“Anglo-Saxon is the heart wood of the English language,” says another writer. “Its toughness, simplicity, and infinite range of metaphorical application are resources upon which we draw daily….”
The Anglo-Saxons clearly loved words, because they had lots of different names for things: for example, they had thirty-six words for hero, twelve words for battle, eleven words for ship. Theirs was a language, as poet and storyteller Kevin Crossley-Holland has said, made up of “earth words”: words like stone (stan) and oak (ac) and apple (appeal).
Most Old English words are short, usually one or two syllables. We should be careful not to jump to the conclusion, though, that just because their vocabulary was, by our standards, relatively simple, the Anglo-Saxons were stupid or linguistically unskilled. On the contrary, like all people who live in oral cultures, they understood the power of words, and they prized those who could use them well. One of the most valued members of a group was the bard, the person who kept in memory all its lore and history, and who could compose orally and recite from memory poems like Beowulf, whose performance lasted for hours.
Archeological discoveries in England show that the Anglo-Saxons were skilled metalworkers and designers of jewelry, beautiful and sophisticated. They brought that same kind of finely-tuned skill to their use of words. The authors of The Story of English tell us: “The Anglo-Saxons, by all accounts, were very sophisticated in the arts of speech.… Their oral tradition was highly developed; they enjoyed expressing their ideas in an original, often rather subtle way. They valued understatement, and liked riddles, and poems which went in circles. These preferences suggest a certain deviousness about them, although they also liked to cultivate an air of plain bareness. …The Anglo-Saxon love of ambiguity, innuendo and wordplay, which remains a distinguishing characteristics of the English language to this day, can be seen very clearly in the collection of Old English verse known as The Exeter Book of Riddles.”
Here are two examples of Old English riddles, as translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland:
Riddle: On the way a miracle: water become bone. (The implied question is, What is this?)
Riddle: I’m told a certain object grows in the corner, rises and expands, throws up a crust. A proud wife carried off that boneless wonder, the daughter of a King covered that swollen thing with a cloth.
No one knows all the details of the interactions between the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts. What’s clear, though, is that the invaders did not absorb very many Celtic words into their language, and they also took from the Celts only about 200 words from the language known as Vulgar Latin, which had been the common tongue of the Roman Empire. At the end of the 6th century, missionaries from the Church of Rome arrived in England, bringing with them new words; many of these words from Latin and Greek—words like angel and altar, pope and school— entered the Anglo-Saxon language and remain with us today.
Most of the language, though, remained solidly Germanic. The early English took what they needed from other languages, without letting the new words take over. This ability to absorb new words, even under the most adverse conditions, has been cited by many writers as the most powerful and enduring characteristic of the English language.
The next big events in the story of English give dramatic evidence of this characteristic.
Our Linguistic Inheritance: The Vikings
The Anglo-Saxons weren’t the only early people to contribute to the making of the English language. Towards the end of the 8th century, after the Anglo-Saxons had divided England into seven kingdoms, the Vikings began to make raids on the land. The Vikings were also called the Norsemen or the Northmen, and they were actually related to the Anglo-Saxons and could understand their language, as the Anglo-Saxons could understand Old Norse. Over the next three hundred years the Vikings first looted, then occupied, many areas of eastern and midland England. After many battles, eventually England was divided into two parts: one, called the Danelaw, was in the eastern and northern part, and that was controlled by the Vikings; the southern and southwestern parts were controlled by the Anglo-Saxons. As this process of invasion and settlement went on, a number words from Old Norse, the Vikings’ language, were absorbed into English.
English absorbed such words as sky and skull and scare and skin. (The sk sound is characteristic of Old Norse.) It also took in words like meek, rotten, crawl, dazzle. At the same time, words entered English from Old Norse that essentially duplicated the meaning of the Old English words, thus creating two ways of saying the same thing—what we now know as synonyms. So, for example, you could say something or someone was hale (Old Norse) or whole (Old English). You could report that a person or an animal was sick (Old Norse) or ill (Old English). You could talk about skill (Old Norse) or craft (Old English). The words the Anglo-Saxons absorbed from the Vikings remain some of the most basic in the English language: get, hit, leg, low, root, skin, same, want, wrong, anger, cake, smile, dirt.
Our Linguistic Inheritance: The Normans
The year 1066 is probably the most famous date in English history. That’s the year in which King Harold of England lost the Battle of Hastings to William the Conqueror of Normandy, and the Normans took over England.
(The Normans, oddly enough, were originally Vikings who had settled in a coastal area of northern France, right across the Channel from England. They had abandoned their Viking culture and language and adopted the culture and language of this particular area; their language was one form of Old French. )
In The Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg observes that the Battle of Hastings was an event “which had a greater effect on the English language than any other in the course of its history. Eighty-five per cent of Old English vocabulary would eventually be lost as a result of that defeat.” In fact, English as a language threatened to disappear altogether
That’s because William didn’t have any money to pay his hired mercenaries and his own soldiers. Instead, he took the land of England away from its rightful English owners, the Saxon thanes, and gave it to his men. And then he used all of his military might, as well as willfully cruel methods such as burning villages and fields, to consolidate his victory at Hastings. While a few Anglo-Saxons were able to save their lands and positions, most were not. The thanes (chief men) of Harold, explains one writer, “were killed, mutilated, outlawed, or reduced to the lowly estate of villeins, half-free serfs on land they had once owned.” Today we would probably call such policies genocide; almost overnight, the Anglo-Saxons became a conquered people.
The Normans consolidated their position in many ways. They built castles (and filled them with garrisons of Norman soldiers) to prevent uprisings. (The English had to build the castles.) William put his own men in all the important positions in the country, including the Church, where Normans took over as bishops and abbots. And he brought from Europe the practice of feudalism, which further impoverished and essentially enslaved ordinary Anglo-Saxons.
The new Norman elite despised the Anglo-Saxons, and so they also despised their language. During the Norman period, says one writer, “Saxon was a despised and neglected tongue, spoken only by the lower social orders.” French, along with Latin, became the language of religion, law, science and literature. All writing was now done in French and Latin (and was the monopoly of Church-educated clerks.) Words like felony, perjury, attorney, bailiff, and nobility can now be found in documents of the period. In government, in the church, and at the court, French was now the language for the “smart” people, the fashionable people, the people in power; and Latin was the professional language. All told, about 10,000 new words from Norman French came into English during this period, about three-quarters of which we still use.
Among these words were words of conquest: army, archer, soldier, battle, castle, siege, armor. Along with these came words that delineated the new social order: crown, court, duke, baron, nobility, peasant, servant. French words took over in art, architecture, and building, Church and religion, government and administration, law, fashion, food and drink; in short, in every area of life which the Normans now controlled.
The most amazing thing about the English language during the Norman period is that it didn’t disappear entirely. English could have been completely taken over by French at this point— but it wasn’t. For one thing, it was just too well established as a language, too hardy, like an English oak tree. And most of the English people probably weren’t using many Norman words, at least at first: for them, Norman French was the language of the conquerors, and they wanted no part of it.
And then, gradually, a reconciliation between the two languages took place. Some time after the Conquest, the Normans began to intermarry with the English. And then, in 1204, the Anglo-Normans lost control of their lands in Normandy, and the nobility were forced to decide whether they would stay in England or return to France. The ones who decided to stay in England also decided—at least most of them did—to speak English.
But this English (known to scholars as “Middle English” to distinguish it from the “Old English” of the Anglo-Saxons) was a very different tongue from that spoken by the men who fought the Battle of Hastings and their families. It was an English whose vocabulary had expanded to include thousands of new words, most of which seem so familiar to us now that it’s hard to believe they weren’t always English: lamp, blanket, bucket, couch, dance, melody, music, paper, boot, calendar, pain, poison, adventure, age, air, country—the list goes on and on.
As with Old Norse, the English language took in these new words, accepted and absorbed them, without being totally displaced by French. The result was a great enrichment of English—not just words that hadn’t been part of the language before, but more words that provided another way of saying something that English already had words for; that is, more synonyms. So now you could use the word hare (English) or the word leveret (French), swan or cygnet, axe or hatchet. You could ask (English) or demand (French), wish or desire.
As this process went on, rather than being used interchangeably, synonymous words began to be perceived as having different shades of meaning, which enabled each word in the pair to convey something just slightly different than the other one. And so the English language became more flexible, more subtle, able to make finer distinctions of meaning.
Melvyn Bragg calls this extensive range of synonyms “one of the glories of the English language, giving it astonishing precision and flexibility, allowing its speakers and writers over the centuries to discover what seemed to be exactly the right word.”
And so English survived its near-annihilation by Norman French, and gradually it began to return as a language for written documents and for literature. Geoffrey Chaucer, born in 1340, made a conscious choice to write in English. (“Chaucer,” says one writer, “was alive to the energy and potential of the language of everyday speech.”)
By the 1300s it was clear that this new English—Middle English—had taken over from French as the national language.
Our Linguistic Inheritance: Latin and Greek
In addition to words from Anglo-Saxon and Norman French, the English of the late Middle Ages also contained many words from Latin and (via Latin) Greek. That’s because Latin was the language of the Church and of scholarship; almost all teachers and scholars were clerics. So words such as monk and psalm and redemptor entered English, as well as words like adoption, collision, conclude, and implement. The influence of Latin and Greek on the English language became increasingly strong during the Renaissance.
A word’s etymology is its history: where it comes from, where it’s been. You can find a note about a word’s etymology in any good large dictionary, but if you are interested in learning more, you’ll want to invest in a good etymological dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the best resource available, but it has many volumes and is expensive; most good public or academic libraries have a copy. I like the one-volume The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories; but it doesn’t include every word in English.
Why do we need to know a word’s history? We don’t have to—lots of writers are not interested in language—but I believe that the more we know about the words we use, the more we can make use of each word’s particular power. So you might want to engage once in a while in the following practice:
Practice: Word History 1
Choose some words you like, or feel curious about, and look them up in a good etymological dictionary. Write down what you learn. Now try using those words in sentences. Do they “feel” different to you now?
Because of the particular history of English, our language has something no other tongue possesses: what one writer calls “a large ‘double’ and even triple vocabulary, in which a Germanic term is paralleled by a French one and often a Latin one as well.” Another writer comments that English is the only language that has—or needs—dictionaries of synonyms. But such dictionaries must be used with great care. For even though an entry in a thesaurus can give us a group of words from which to choose, those words are not really exact synonyms. (One English writer has said: “The only exact synonyms in the English language are ‘furze’ and ‘gorse.’" Knowing something about the history of our words can enable us to become more sensitive to their “shades” of meaning—which will enable us to use them with increased skill.
Writers who know something about the history of English have a better “feel” for words than those who don’t. So, for instance, Melvyn Bragg, author of The Adventure of English as well as many novels, points out that you can take a bit (English) of cheese or a morsel (French) of cheese; you can start (English) a project or commence (French) it. To his ear, the French words sound more “classy,” yet he prefers the more down-to-earth English words.
The key here is the use of one’s ear: how do the various choices sound to you?
Many writers on English have commented that French-derived words sound more “literary” than Anglo-Saxon ones, and that Latinate words sound more scholarly—even pretentious.
Quite often as we write we are able to make a choice between an Old English word, a French word, and a Latin word. For instance:
English: rise French: mount Latin: ascend
English: kingly French: royal Latin: regal
English: ask French: question Latin: interrogate
English: goodness French:virtue Latin: probity
English: holy French: sacred Latin: consecrated
English: work French: labor Latin: exertion
How do these three kinds of words sound to your ear?
Choose some words and look each one up in your thesaurus. (A thesaurus is a reference book which groups together words with similar meanings.) Collect from each entry three choices, one you think is English (from Old English), one French-derived, one Latin-derived. Write a sentence using the English word, then rewrite the sentence using the French and Latin words. Read your sentences out loud. What do you notice? Which of the words most appeals to you?
Do this practice with a few different words.
Synonyms and Style
Naturally, when we write, we make use of words from all phases of the history of English. Yet, faced with choices among English, French, and Latin words, our ear often tells us that one kind of word “sounds better” than another. When we make these choices among words, we are creating our own style. And while these choices are usually unconscious, it can also be helpful to educate our writer’s ear to the possibilities of style that depend on whether we choose English, French, or Latin words.
Practice: Read for style 1
Read the following passages, paying attention to the diction. What do you notice? How does each writer’s choice of words affect you? Consider the difference between English (Anglo-Saxon) words, French-derived words, and Latinate words: how would you describe these differences?
Style featuring Anglo-Saxon words:
Then Offa spoke, and shook his ash-wood spear:
"Alfwin, you have encouraged all the thanes
In time of need. Now that our prince, our earl,
Lies on the ground the need for all is great
That each of us should urge on every other
Soldier to battle…"
—from the Old English poem, "The Battle of Malden"
It was an empty, oyster-and-pearl afternoon. The water lipped at the sand and sorted the shingle and lapped round the rock where the girl was sitting.
Then she saw a seal, like a mass of seaweed almost, until she gazed into those eyes. It swam in quite close, just twenty or thirty water-steps away.
She looked at the seal; the seal looked at her. Then it barked. It cried out in a loud voice.
She stood up on her rock. She called out to the seal: not a word but a sound, the music words are made of.
The seal swam in a little closer. It looked at the girl. Then it cried. Oh! The moon’s edge and a mother’s ache were in that cry.
The girl jumped off the rock. Her eyes were sea-eyes, wide and flint-grey. “Seal!” she cried. “Sea-woman! What do you want?”
—Kevin Crossley-Holland, "Sea-Woman," from British Folk Tales
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
—Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
Style featuring French-derived words:
Since she has taken me for her counsellor, I pray that she holds her love dear and shows more favor to a worthy vassal than to a count or duke who would hold her in dishonour…
—Bertrand de Born (French troubadour poet, 12th century)
Many years ago, I contracted an intimacy with a Mr. William Legrand. He was of an ancient Huguenot family, and had once been wealthy; but a series of misfortunes had reduced him to want. To avoid the mortification consequent upon his disasters, he left New Orleans, the city of his forefathers, and took up his residence at Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston, South Carolina.
—Edgar Allen Poe, “The Gold-Bug”
Style featuring Latinate words:
A loose orotundity leads to the insertion of unnecessary attributes.
—Herbert Read, English Prose Style
Knowledge of a Universe (in an astrophysical or axiological sense) is only possible through the mediation of autopoietic machines. A zone of self-belonging needs to exist somewhere for the coming into cognitive existence of any being or any modality of being.
Practice: Reading for style 2
Take a look at some passages by a writer you like. Notice what kind of words the writer has chosen—English, French, Latinate. What is the effect of this choice?
Practice: Choose words by their origins
Collect some words you guess are of Anglo-Saxon origin and play with putting them together into sentences. Read your sentences out loud. How do they sound to you?
Now collect some words you guess are originally from French or Latin. Play with putting them together into sentences. Read your sentences out loud. How do they sound to you.
Practice: Combine the three kinds of words
Collect (or use again) some Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin words. Play with putting them into sentences. Read your sentences out loud. How do they sound to you?
Practice: Rewrite for word choice
Take a passage of your own writing and notice what kinds of words you have chosen. Experiment with rewriting the passage making use of another kind of words.
Practice: Reflect on style
Make some notes to yourself about what you perceive as the characteristics of Anglo-Saxon, French-derived, and Latinate words. Do you prefer one kind of word to the others?
WHERE DO OUR WORDS COME FROM? 2: WE BORROW THEM
Starting in the Renaissance, England began the exploration and conquest that continued for four centuries and resulted in what we know as the British Empire. English people went just about everywhere, as explorers, or sailors, or soldiers; as merchants and traders; as administrators in the Empire. And when they heard words in other languages, if they liked them, they borrowed them. And so words, many words, that came originally from the tongues of native peoples all over the world, ended up in English. Over and over again the language demonstrated its strongest characteristic: the ability to take in new words from other languages.
Hundreds of new words, from almost fifty languages, became part of English. There were armada and banana, guitar and hammock (from Spain and Portugal); there were smuggle and yacht and cruise (from Holland); there were opera and volcano and soprano (Italy). In came words from lands far away, sometimes via intermediary languages: bamboo (Malay); coffee (Turkish via French); curry (Tamil); alcohol (Arabic).
At the same time, scholars and educated people became more interested in the classics of Latin and Greek literature and philosophy, and thousands of Latin words came into the vocabulary of the educated. Words like excavate, horrid, pathetic, pungent, frugal, submerge entered English, alongside Latin and Greek words used in the rapidly-expanding fields of science and medicine (for instance, skeleton, tendon, larynx, temperature, viruses.) As Melvyn Bragg points out, the use of Latin and Greek words had considerable snob value: using Latin and Greek words (like ostracize or catastrophe) was a sign that you were more exclusive, smarter, better educated, above the commonplace.
Borrowing from other languages still continues in English. Robot, for instance is a twentieth-century borrowing from Czech; jukebox comes from Creole; karaoke from Japanese (where it means, literally “dead orchestra”). This continual borrowing is one of the things that keeps our language alive, unlike classical Latin and Greek, whose vocabulary (as dead languages) is fixed forever.
Naturally, as new words enter a language, some old words disappear. In a book called The Word Museum Jeffrey Kacirk has made a fascinating collection of some of these long-forgotten words: neeze (to go in search of birds’ nests), for instance, and ninny-broth (coffee), and hoined (fatigued).
Practice: Find borrowed words
Browse in your dictionary to collect some words English has borrowed from languages around the world. Make some of them your own by putting them into sentences.
WHERE DO OUR WORDS COME FROM? 3: WE MAKE THEM UP
In addition to inheriting words, and borrowing them, we also invent them. The era of Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan poets and dramatists was one of the great ages of word-creation in English. Writer Bill Bryson says Shakespeare invented one in ten of the words he used: words such as barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, majestic, frugal, radiance, dwindle, fragrant, gloomy. Many of Shakespeare’s words, like these, caught on, and we use them still; others, like barky or brisky, vanished.
But inventing words is not the domain only of great writers. Ordinary people do it, too. Kids make up secret words to use with their friends; teenagers invent entire languages, such as the “Valleyspeak” of a few generations ago; every profession, every subculture, has its lingo that only initiates speak and understand. Sometimes some of these words make it into the mainstream, at least for a time: jazz musician slang words, like groovy or hip, were in vogue in the 1960s, along with words from the drug subculture like stoned and reefer.
How We Invent Words
How we make up words is a rather mysterious process. Here are a few of the ways we do it:
Compounding is simple: it means taking two words that can each stand independently and combining them. The Anglo-Saxons extended their vocabulary by doing this, and English speakers ever since have done the same. So familiar is this process that we often don’t realize that many of our common words are in fact compounds. For example:
peacemaker warlike birthday lamplight moonlight daytime northeast airport seashore footwear railroad flowerpot highway afternoon airhead
Practice: Collect and make compound words
Collect some compound words. Notice how they are made. Now spend a few minutes unpacking your wordhoard, writing down all the words you collect. Can you select two words from your list to make a compound word?
Affixation is the process of taking a word and adding a prefix, or a suffix, or both. Bill Bryson (in Mother Tongue) says: “English has more than 100 common prefixes and suffixes— -able, -ness, -ment-, pre-, dis-, anti-, and so on—and with this it can form and reform words with a facility that yet again sets it apart from other languages.” While Anglo-Saxon (Old English) did have some prefixes (like be- as in beneath or bequeath or beside) and suffixes, it’s words from Latin and Greek that have lent themselves most to this treatment.
Here are some more common prefixes and suffixes in English:
inter- pro- ex- extra- sub- re-
-ly -ful --tion -ing -ed
Bryson adds: “[Affixation] is still perhaps the most prolific way of forming new words, and perhaps the simplest.”
We can also remove a suffix from a word to make a new word, a process known as “back-formation”. For instance, Rag, from OE raggy and ME ragged. Also: exam (from examination), gym (from gymnasium), lab (from laboratory).
Practice: Make words by affixation
Collect some words that contain prefixes or suffixes. Notice how they are made. Now take some words (without prefixes and suffixes) from your word hoard and add prefixes or suffixes.
We can also invent new words through a poetic technique called onomatopoeia; with this technique we invent a word that echoes a sound something makes. Children (with the help of their parents) often make use of this technique, calling a dog the bow-wow, or a duck the quack-quack. Words like bang or crash are probably of onomatopoetic origin, as are words (from early comic strips and radio dramas) like zowie or pow.
Practice: Make words using onomatopoeia
Collect some words that you think might have been onomatopoetic in origin. Now using this technique, make up some new words. Use your ear, and let yourself play!
4. New meaning for existing words
Another way we frequently make up new words is by taking a word for which we already have a certain meaning and giving it another one. A couple of decades ago, for instance, who would have believed that the word mouse would indicate an oval piece of plastic? Who would have expected that, at least among some groups, the word wicked would mean very good? Or that the word heavy (as in “He’s a heavy thinker.”) would come to mean deep?
The reality is that language is very flexible; and words change their meanings all the time. Bill Bryson says that more than half of the English words that come from Latin have changed their meaning. Nice, for instance, originally meant stupid or foolish. Chaucer used it to mean lascivious or wanton; and for the next four hundred years its meaning changed many times before settling into pleasant and agreeable. Similarly, counterfeit once meant “a legitimate copy,” brave once implied cowardice, and crafty was a term of praise.
Sometimes words change their meanings because we take a proper name and apply it to a thing or a concept. Our word sandwich, many say, derives from the name of a particular man, the Earl of Sandwich. The word quisling (a traitor who cooperates with an enemy) comes from Major Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian army officer who ruled Norway on behalf of the German occupying forces during World War II.
Other times words change their meaning by becoming more specific. For instance, in Old English, the word deer meant any animal, and the word meat meant any kind of food.
Sometimes an older meaning of a word is preserved in a phrase or expression: e.g. neck of the woods (neck once meant “a piece of land”) or teller (to tell once meant “to count”). When this happens, the word is called a fossil.
Practice: Invent new meanings
Collect some words and see if you can invent new meanings for them. Write down the meanings and then use each word in a sentence.
5. New roles for old words
We can also take an existing word and give it a new role to play in sentences: if it’s a noun, for instance, like impact, we can make it a verb, and say, “That situation will adversely impact our bottom line.” Many people who love the English language loathe this kind of thing; but it can be done well—especially by poets. In Elizabethan English, apparently, almost any word could be used for any part of speech: an adverb could become a verb, a noun could become an adjective, a noun could become a verb, or vice versa. And so Shakespeare wrote phrases like: uncle me no uncle; happy me no friend; fall an axe on someone’s neck.
Practice: Invent new roles
Collect some nouns. Then see if you can use them as verbs, or adjectives, or adverbs. If you like this practice, start with a verb.
Invented words not built on existing words are called neologisms. Lewis Carroll invented many words in his now-classic poem “Jabberwocky:”
Twas brilling, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the rabe;
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the momraths outgrabe.
Many writers have played with inventing words: just look at Tolkien’s hobbits and orcs. Here’s another example (from Bleak House, by Dickens):
“Richard must have a profession [said Mr. Jarndyce]; he must make some choice for himself. There will be a world more wiglomeration about it, I suppose, but it must be done.”
“More what, guardian?” said I.
“More wiglomeration,” said he. “It’s the only name I know for the thing. He is a ward in Chancery, my dear…the whole thing will be vastly ceremonious, wordy, unsatisfactory, and expensive, and I call it, in general, wiglomeration.”
A love of wordplay is really at the heart of the English language (remember those Anglo-Saxon riddles!). And sometimes, try as we might, the only way to find the exact word we need is to make one up.
Practice: Make neologisms
Invent some words. Write down your definition for each word, then use the word in a sentence. (If you want to see how the pros do this, find a copy of the book, In a Word.)
7. Grouping words
Sometimes, when we need a new word, we decide to take a few words and put them together to make a phrase that means something different than the sum of its component parts. According to one writer, Shakespeare was a master of this technique:
“If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘It’s Greek to me,’ you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare if you recall your salad days you are quoting Shakespeare; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise — why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare…”
Such groupings of words, when they pass into common use, soon lose their freshness and become clichés. That’s why writers are constantly inventing new ways to say things.
Practice: Make word groups
Look back over all the words you have selected (or begin by collecting some more, if you prefer). Then select some words to go into a group. What might this phrase mean? Write down your definition, then use the phrase in a sentence.
Practice: Take time to Reflect
What have you learned in this article? Are there aspects of etymology that you would like to learn more about? How do you want to use your knowledge of where words come from in your own writing?