Sunday, July 8, 2012

Etymology Fun and a Survey Question

Learning objectives that pertain to both etymological and morphological insight are integrated into the Common Core State Standards--learning standards adopted by 45 of 50 states. I will compare how the two types of linguistic insight are addressed in the Common Core, by grade level, in the next post.

For today, I offer an illustrated (and tongue-in-cheek) look at etymology, followed by a survey question. Scroll down for the emedded survey, or respond directly at Twiigs Polls.

Etymology is the study of how words have changed in form and meaning over time, including word origins.

For example, in Old English pretty was spelled a variety of ways, including, but not limited to, pæti, pætig, and prættig. The pronunciation differed from that of today, and so did the meaning: It originally meant "cunning or crafty."

Several centuries later, during Middle English, pretty described a more positive trait: "clever, skillful, or able" (Oxford English Dictionary, online).

Gradually, pretty morphed again, to indicate "pleasing in appearance." It is sometimes used in the diminutive, endearing sense ( that how she intended it?)

Pretty is also used as an intensifier, much like we use fairly or moderately:
 "A pretty cold day in July" ( San Francisco, of course). 

It can be interesting to think about why the meaning of a word changed. How did pretty segue from "cunning" to "skillful" to "good looking?" Sometimes, just by pondering, we can get somewhere.

Etymology also includes the origins of words--whether a word -- in some form or another -- was first used by the ancient Etruscans, for example.

In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Toula’s father, Gus, tries to connect every English word to that of a Greek word, including arachnophobia (yes) and kimono (huh??). Video clip here.
That was one of my favorite scenes (along with about 30 other hilarious bits). But Gus may be onto something, for while the Japanese word kimono is not traced to Greek roots, the Japanese word karaoke is, to limited extent. Karaoke is a "portmanteau word" or "linguistic blend" formed when words are smashed together, leaving some letters out during the collision (see prior post). In karaoke, kara is Japanese for "empty" and oke is the remaining bit that is leftover from the Japanese ōkesutora "orchestra."

BUT!! Gus would be quick to explain that orchestra flows from Greek roots, so karaoke must come from Greece, and he would be (partly) correct.

The Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that orchestra is from Latin orchestra, from Greek orkhestra, a semicircular space where the chorus of dancers performed, with suffix -tra denoting place + orkheisthai meaning "to dance."
Gus: "You see: orchestra, karaoke. There you go!" 
By the way, kara is also seen in the Japanese word karate, where kara means "empty" and te indicates "hand" -- "empty handed" or weaponless, in a sense.

Enough said for now. Next time, the results of the survey and more information about etymology and the Common Core Standards.

Do you give much thought to the origins of the words you use? Do you wonder if a word or phrase hails from Jamaica or Japan? From Haiti, Hungary, or the Hawaiian Islands? Does this knowledge help you with spelling or pronunciation, for example? Vote below, or take the survey at Twiigs Polls.

Thanks for participating!

I will keep this poll up for a month.
See you in August.



"pretty, adj., n., and int.". OED Online. June 2012. Oxford University Press. 7 July 2012

To look up the etymology of a word, try The Online Etymology Dictionary.


  1. Sam Humphrey7/09/2012

    Love the Big Fat Greek Wedding commentary, Susan! Sounds like your having fun this summer!

  2. Thanks, Sam!

    It was great to meet you last month. Hope your summer is going well!



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