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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Stories of Words

Handwritten words

A wordsmith is a true alchemist; one who turns air and ink into gold, for working with words can heal, or start a dialogue that begins peace between people.

Furthermore the word - the most important tool of the wordsmith's trade to ply the material of the imagination - has been forged together to make up some the world's best literature.

But words also hold fascinating stories by themselves.

Words as Stories

On closer inspection, we can find that some words are central to its culture ("God", "marriage"), while some words are the modern creation of "vocabularians" (persons who make up new words), but all have a story to tell locked within their meaning.

Even just playing about with the letters of a word can give it a tale to tell: take the name of our planet "Earth", swap the letters around and we find the anagrams "hater" and "heart".

That's a story in itself.

What's in a Name?

Are names just words we use to label ourselves? Sometimes the names we're given are important, and sometimes we make our own names with the ones we're given. Yet, each name has a story.

Below I give a list of some names in the English language that have interesting origins locked in their meaning.

    The Girls
  1. Elizabeth (Means 'God is my oath')
  2. Caroline (Means 'little and womanly')
  3. Helen (Originates from the Greek Helene, first used in the Iliad)
  4. Olivia (A Latinate name coined by Shakespeare back in 1599 when he wrote Twelfth Night (1599). Scholars believe he might have derived the name from the olive plant (Latin: 'oliva') or used it as a feminine form of Oliver.)
  5. Lucy (A name derived from the Latin noun 'Lux', meaning light.)
  6. Katie (From the Danish form Katherine, which means 'purity of emotion')
  7. Sophie (Originates from the Greek Sophia, meaning wisdom)
  8. Rachel (This can simply mean lovely or the innocence and gentility of a rose.)
    The Boys
  1. Michael (Means 'who is like God')
  2. James (The name is actually derived from the same Hebrew name as Jacob, meaning 'one who supplants'.)
  3. Richard (This esteemed title comes from the Germanic elements 'ric' (king) and 'hard' (strong and brave).)
  4. William (A name which became popular in Britain after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Taken from the German Wilhelm, Wil means will or desire, while helm refers to a helmet or protection, brave warriors.)
  5. Jack (Derived from the name John, meaning gracious)
  6. Chris (Short for Christopher, which means 'Christ-bearer')
  7. Ryan (Means 'little king')
  8. Peter (Means 'rock')

Their stories don't end in those brackets I've encased them in of course, they can go much farther if we dig at them, like archaeologists moving away top soils of meaning to get to the layers below.

A Timely Phrase

The English language is a treasure trove of phrases and sayings, but many can be deprived of their relevance with the passage of time, as highlighted by a BBC article (albeit a little tongue-in-cheek) about phrases that needed updating.

One of the examples it used was "Putting the cart before the horse", which means to reverse the natural order of things, while pointing out that horses and carts are rarely seen on British streets in modern times.

Other trivia included three phrases that arguably have kept their meaning today, and weathered the passage of time well. In publishing them, they also provided the stories behind those phrases.

I give them here:

  1. At the eleventh hour means the last moment, just in time. Its first mention is thought to be in Matthew's Gospel, referring to labourers hired for the vineyard who started work at 5pm and were paid the same as those who had worked all day. The World War I armistice, called at 11am of 11 November, gave the image added impetus.

  2. It's all Greek to me. Shakespeare used this expression in Julius Caesar in 1599 and it has stuck since for anything that is unintelligible or alien. Given the average Briton's aversion to learning a foreign tongue, let alone one that has a different alphabet, the saying retains its bite.

  3. A fly in the ointment is the detail that spoils everything. In Ecclesiastes (10:1), it is said: "Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour."

Reading the origins of sayings is a re-discovery of their purpose; the play of words and phrases is a complex one that helps to conjure up images to sometimes simplify a complex situation.

And even if particular phrases may need updating, the need for them in our language will be timeless - and each will always come locked with its own history and story to tell.

Prologue | End of part one | Part two | Part three

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