Enron

Big news stories, especially scandals, often generate a variety of nonce words. Some survive, like the –gate suffix of the Watergate scandal, others disappear into the mists of history. The Enron Scandal is no different. It’s generated a plethora of nonce terms and phrases, or Enronyms, if you will.

The most famous of these, perhaps, is the verb to Enron, coined by Senator Tom Daschle in a CNN interview on 23 January of this year. Comparing the Enron employees’ loss of their pensions to Republican raiding of the Social Security trust fund, Daschle said, “I don’t want to Enron the people of the United States. I don’t want to see them holding the bag at the end of the day just like Enron employees have held the bag.”

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Loan-Words and Where They Come From

Below is a list of different languages and some English words that derive from roots in those languages. This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are many, many more such words than are listed here. And do not draw conclusions based on the number of words listed. While in some cases a conclusion may be valid (e.g., Finnish has one word listed and the impact Finnish has had on English is indeed minimal), in others it may not be (e.g., Arabic has about as many words listed as Latin, but the impact of Latin on English is incomparably larger).

This is a sample only. But another caution, it is not necessarily a representative sample; although you can draw some conclusions based on the words listed here (e.g., most Japanese loan words are used in connection with Japanese culture, such as geisha or sashimi, and have not been adopted into generic English use, although a few have, such as futon or tycoon).

Some of these words come into English via other languages (e.g., many native American words arrive via Spanish). I’ve tried to note where such intermediary languages are common. Words marked with a question mark (?) are of uncertain origin, but probably come from that language.

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How Many Words In The English Language?

This question is only tangentially related to word and phrase origins, but enough people ask it that I thought I’d provide a permanent answer.

This is an indeterminate question. First, there is the problem of what exactly is a word. Are mouse, mice, mousy, and mouselike separate words or just forms of one root word? Is a computer mouse the same word as the rodent? (To demonstrate the difficulty in counting words, over the centuries many scholars have attempted to count how many different words Shakespeare used in his corpus of work. The counts run anywhere from 16,000 to 30,000.)

Second, unlike French, English has no official body to determine what is proper and what is not. English dictionaries are (usually) descriptive in nature, not prescriptive. That is they describe how the language exists and is used, they do not prescribe its use. Just because a word “is not in the dictionary,” doesn’t mean that it is not a legitimate word. It simply means the dictionary editors omitted it for one reason or another.

The Oxford English Dictionary, the largest English-language dictionary, contains some 290,000 entries with some 616,500 word forms in its second edition. Of course, there are lots of slang and regional words that are not included and the big dictionary omits many proper names, scientific and technical terms, and jargon as a matter of editorial policy (e.g., there are some 1.4 million named species of insect alone). All told, estimates of the total vocabulary of English start at around three million words and go up from there.

Of these, about 200,000 words are in common use today. An educated person has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words and uses about 2,000 in a week’s conversation. (These estimates vary widely depending on who is doing the counting, so don’t take them as absolute.)

A (Very) Brief History of the English Language

Indo-European and Germanic Influences

English is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. This broad family includes most of the European languages spoken today. The Indo-European family includes several major branches:

  • Latin and the modern Romance languages;
  • The Germanic languages;
  • The Indo-Iranian languages, including Hindi and Sanskrit;
  • The Slavic languages;
  • The Baltic languages of Latvian and Lithuanian (but not Estonian);
  • The Celtic languages; and
  • Greek.

The influence of the original Indo-European language, designated proto-Indo-European, can be seen today, even though no written record of it exists. The word for father, for example, is vater in German, pater in Latin, and pitr in Sanskrit. These words are all cognates, similar words in different languages that share the same root.

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Common Errors in Etymology

The fact is, man is an etymologizing animal. He abhors the vacuum of an unmeaning word. If it seems lifeless, he reads a new soul into it, and often, like an unskillful necromancer, spirits the wrong soul into the wrong body.

The Reverend A. Smythe Palmer, Folk-Etymology, 1890

Popular wisdom often adopts tales about the origins of words. Sometimes these tales are correct, but more often they are not. These popular etymologies suffer from several recurring errors.

Superficial Resemblances

“Because two words look the same, they must come from the same source.” This is a very common error. To be fair, many, if not most, similar words are etymologically related, but this is not always the case. In fact, there are so many exceptions to this rule, that it is a very poor guide.

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