Etymology and the Art of Language

WordsDid you know that a bracket (←one of these→) is inspired by the codpiece and can thank its origins, in part (not that part), to Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame? And, did you know that “a stone’s throw” comes from a rather peculiar game of throwing stones at chickens?

Maybe not (unless you’re reading The Etymologicon too). You probably do know all sorts of random facts about words though – if you’re like me in any way. (Did you know an adder used to be a nadder? etc.etc.) That’s the joy of etymology. From a tiny handful of languages, we now have thousands. Some died out (poor Latin), and some are still evolving (our trusted English tongue is in this camp)*. But they all have words and sounds and sentences in common.

Etymology fascinates me. Not least because I enjoy spouting random/annoying/useless facts and being able to answer obscure questions on QI. But also because it opens up the possibilities for my own writing.

How many fantasy writers out there have made up their own languages and names and places? How much thought do you put in to these words?

I love to make up a name that, etymologically-speaking, means something fantastically obscure and wonderfully appropriate for my character. I adore naming a city something that sounds brilliant when you say it, but if you were to look in to the etymology of it, it means something squelchy and disgusting.

A large part of the art of writing is simply playing with words. I can spend hours scribbling nonsense just for the pure joy of creating words and sentences. Sometimes something inspirational comes from it, other times it really is just complete nonsense.

Since reading the aforementioned The Etymologicon (a highly-recommended read for a light-hearted and fascinating look at words), words have taken on a new meaning. I think over them more – roll them around my mind and look at them from every angle. Put them somewhere, and decide it doesn’t fit and try it somewhere else. Some words I’m using for the first time, others I’m using in a new way, because suddenly I feel like I understand them again.

This is not a review of the book. This is a review of etymology, the art of language, and the joy of words. This is a review of my rediscovered enjoyment of language – not just the everyday use of it that we take for granted – but the fact that each word has a history, an original meaning, and a story of its own.

It’s like finding out magic is real, and I’ve been using it all along.

For some reason, my writing is becoming my obsession again. I lost it in 2012 – I forgot what writing felt like and what it meant to me, and so it fell by the wayside, ignored and forlorn as Real Life overtook it. But now it’s back. I feel I can write for 14 hours straight and not notice that I haven’t eaten all day. I stand in the shower and think of something really good that I absolutely must write down NOW. I make other train passengers jump when I yelp and scramble in my bag for a notepad and have to scribble my bubble of inspiration down RIGHT THAT MINUTE.

Any writer will tell you that their love of language conquers all. From a year of drought, and of wondering if I could really count myself as a real writer, comes a year of plenty – when my mind is close to exploding with words. I am inspired by the very letters themselves.

What is your favourite word fact? Have you had a word drought recently? What got you over it?

I asked for weird-word facts over on my Facebook page – and there have already been some great suggestions! As a result, my new favourite word is ruth-full…

*Do you also now find that you can’t look at a bracket in the same way?

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