Etymology – Improving Your Understanding of Words

Etymon – True, Real, Actual
Logos – Word, Speech, Reason

Often with words we think that we know exactly what they mean but tend to know only the ‘current’ usages and not their original means. Etymology looks at the origin of words and in doing so helps us to understand the deeper meanings of the words we use.

Last week I googled the word singularity for my poem. I knew that it was something to with black holes and being singular but I found another new meaning. Let’s look at how we use both etymology and dictionary definitions to understand this word more fully:

Singularity’s dictionary definition as given here in full is basically in 3 parts:

1. To be single, unique.
2. The singularity related to a black hole and space.
3. The technological singularity (AI’s or technology taking over from humans in a way that irreversible.

But if you look at the etymology for the word you find the original meaning as:

“alone, apart; being a unit; special, unsurpassed,” from Old French singuler “personal particular; distinctive; singular in number” 

 from Latin singularis “single, solitary, one by one, one at a time; peculiar, remarkable,” from singulus. Meaning “remarkably good, unusual, rare, separated from others .

This definition is from and shows where the word originates from. 

Similarly if you look at common words like the words digital and logic they come from:

pertaining to fingers,” from Latin digitalis, from digitus (see digit). Meaning “using numerical digits

 Old French logique from Latin logica “logic,” from Greek logike (techne) “(the) reasoning (art),” from fem. of logikos “pertaining to speaking or reasoning” (also “of or pertaining to speech”), from logos “reason, idea, word”.

Maybe you knew some of those definitions but if you didn’t there are some definitions in there you may not have expected. The modern day usage of digital may seem far removed from the definition ‘fingers’ but words change. Meanings change or become more complex and often more streamlined. At one time a tweet was a bird a noise made, now it’s a verb for writing Twitter messages. Etymology helps writers to understand the original meanings and where the words came from (as far as the evidence shows). This helps you to layer your use of them with more than one meaning. Even if you aren’t aware of it while writing, etymology can help your writing to be deeper and in some ways more symbolic. When I used the word singularity as a title, I meant single, strange or unusual and was thinking of an astronomical singularity but didn’t directly mean one definiton or the other. I didn’t know the technological meaning until I checked the definition. It isn’t necessarily relevant in my case here but if I wrote a scifi story with Aritifical Intelligence or a dystopian world overruled by technology the third meaning could be relevant then if the poem was included somewhere in the story.

Occassionally checking not just the dictionary definiton but also the etymological information can help to improve your writing by allowing for layered meanings. Many English phrases originated from other languages and you’ll find that it will help you with other languages and unfamiliar terminology too as you’ll begin to be able to guess the meaning from etymological knowledge.

For example is you didn’t know what the lingustic word polyglot means you might make the leap from knowing that poly usually means many and glot is Greek for tongue. Many + tongue = Someone who speaks more than one language. This is how etymology helps you to understand and translate words better. 

So next time you go to check a new word’s meaning don’t just check a dictionary book or site, look up it’s etymology to. 


2 thoughts on “Etymology – Improving Your Understanding of Words

  1. I’m an avid dictionary user and I agree with your advice. I recommend *always* looking up the etymology of a new word (and sometimes that of old words too, eventually you’ll catch up with them all). You may not remember the word’s origin, but it’ll help you fit it within the linguist web in your head. (In the beginning it might be a it onerous, but the more you do it, the easier and more fun it becomes!)

    • Thanks very much for your comment. I like that phrase ‘the linguistic web’. That’s a great way to describe it. I certainly believe doing as you suggest facilitates a better understanding of linguistics in general.

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