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How Words Evolve… a Darwinian look a the English Language


On a rainy, spring evening in May, Patricia T. O’Conner, former editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of Woe is I  and Origins of the Specious gave a talk at the Mid-Manhattan Library, for the 4th year in a row, entitled, “How Words Evolve… a Darwinian look at the English Language."  You might think a talk on grammar would be drab—it was anything but.  She briefly discussed how new words are formed, how old ones change, and even how the dinosaurs among them become extinct.  Did you know that the color, puce, has a Greek origin; that “Serendip” is the former name of Sri Lanka, and that Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity?  

The English Language, though Germanic, has many borrowed words, such as puce; compound words (baseball, rollerblade, etc.,); shortened words, NABISCO—National Biscuit Company, BLOG—web + log.  Not surprised yet?  Here is how the word taxicab came into use.  In the 1830s the word “cab” was shortened from the 19th century French word, Cabriolet (covered horse-drawn carriage).  The word, “taximeter” has a French, German and Latin derivation, and it means to fit a cab with a meter to calculate the fare.  In 1907 the word “taxi-cab” first came into use and its meaning remains unchanged.

Many nouns become verbs, such as the word, “cook.”  It began as a noun, and the verb, “to cook” did not come along until later. However, the noun, “impact” began as a verb and became a noun.  As a verb, it meant “to pack in.”  In this example, the verb accommodated the new use as a noun.  Other words were formed using parts of the body, such as, “to elbow” someone, and “to head” in the same direction.  Some words acquire their meanings through conversion, such as, “cute.”  The word, cute started from acute (Latin) in the late 1500s.  It once meant a “sharp-witted” person, and later it was used with a broader meaning, “cunning.” Then later it took on the meaning, “attractive,” but in a smallish way according to Ms. O’Conner, for we wouldn’t describe Buckingham Palace as being cute.  The word, “awe” means fear, dread, terror of God; it took on religious overtones, such as reverence in the presence of greatness.  The Latin word for nice is “nescius.”  It originally meant stupid, foolish, and in the late 18th century it began to mean pleasant.  It has been around since then and continues to be overused.  Sophisticated once meant corrupted.  The word “dashboard” was adapted and has not become extinct.  The word, “geek” was recorded in 19th century Northern England and once meant a foolish person, then later, in the mid-20th century it meant an anti-social person.  Today, it means someone devoted to computers. 

Ninety-four people packed two sixth floor conference rooms at the Mid-Manhattan Library to listen to Ms. O’Conner.  The bookseller had a brisk sale of her books at the end of her talk, and a good time was had by all.

Do you love words and learning word origins?  Remember you can access the entire Oxford English Dictionary from home with your library card!



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just wondering. . .

I have been living in one world for 22 years already. I wanted to know a lot about life and the basics of existence and how to exist as a full human being. Every waking day is what i consider as "confusing day", another new day to learn a lot of new things that makes us understand about the only world that we have been living all our lives, but as time goes by i realized that a day is not enough to learn every little thing that surrounds us. The very thing that i've been searching for answers now is how every word that comes out from the mouth of every individual existed. How did everything started? How come a certain word is suited only for a particular thing or however you may call it. I may be asking too much, eventually, i'm just like the others, looking for answers with the many questions that has been in our minds for a long time. Small things has bigger answers.

"Just Wondering.."

More than one word can be used to describe a "particular thing." For more information on the English Language, please visit Ms. O'Conner's website

It's a tad annoying that an

It's a tad annoying that an article about language should contain so many punctuation errors. Most of the commas preceding the words in quotation marks are not necessary. For example: If in your sentence "'...the verb, 'to cook' did not come along until later" you placed another comma after "to cook", we would have two separate clauses. The primary would read: "the verb did not come until later." The meaning of "to cook" would then be: the verb I a refer to is "to cook." This would not be necessary, but at least it would be grammatically correct. Instead, you've actually created two sentences: 1) It began as a noun, and the verb; 2) “To cook” did not come along until later. Obviously, neither one makes much sense, although both have a certain poetic whimsy to them. Since the brain automatically reconstructs missing parts of our environment, in order to provide us with a logical universe, it's unlikely that anyone will fail to understand your meaning. That doesn't make your grammar any better, though. And while the lecture you describe was not about grammar but about the origin of words, both are essential components of language. Wouldn't it be nice if both were equally precise?

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