Visualizing Word Origins

I seldom link to older blog posts, but this one is right up our alley, and I’ve only just come across it. Back in April, mkinde of the blog Ideas Illustrated created some multicolor visualizations of the origins of words in various types of writing, such as a passage from Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Dickens’s Great Expectations, medical writing, sports writing, and legal writing. He used Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary as his source for the etymologies.

The result is striking and drives home the point of how many of our most-used words come from Old English, but it also drives home the degree to which reliance on words from Old English can vary significantly with genre; it’s much lower in legal and medical writing. We often think of writing as generic, but it isn’t. Different genres and audiences require different registers and vocabularies.

I was going to voice a quibble over possible confusion between Latin, Old Norse, and Old English, but there’s no need. Old English contains many words from Old Norse and a few, but oft-used, words from Latin (mainly ecclesiastical and religious terms), so there can be some definitional disputes over language of origin. But it appears that all the words marked as Old Norse or Latin are post-Conquest additions to the language (or at least aren’t in recorded use until after William crossed the Channel). If the word’s root was in English use before 1066, it’s marked as Old English. So kudos for getting a subtle point correct.

[Tip o’ the hat to Languagehat.]

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