It’s Greek to me!

 Joe Mc Kay’s “Crazy About Words”
… toasting our language since 2003!

The other day, following a talk I’d given, a word enthusiast raised her hand and asked, “Why do you feel entomology is so important?” I responded, deadpan, “Because they say insects will one day dominate the earth.” She blushed as the audience laughed. But I am all too familiar with that mistake. I apologized to her for my smart-aleck response. Until I really got into etymology, the study of the origin of words, I hesitated in my reach for the correct one of those two words myself.

Among the nearly 500 “–ologies,” (Greek suffix for “the study of”) listed in the dictionary, many are difficult to remember or distinguish from another. Cosmetology (cosmetics) and cosmology (the cosmos, the origins of the universe) or ethology (animal behavior) and etiology (the origins of disease) could hardly be more different in meaning. Yet the words are similar enough in their look or sound that we blunder ceaselessly and tend to avoid using them. Too bad!

One of the banes of my existence is that favorite word of writers waxing philosophical, a word I really like but, ironically, can never remember: epistemology (the study of the origins of human knowledge). I have to look it up every time, but I know one day it will stick.

Our problem, it seems to me, is most acute when the front part of the word is Greek as well. It’s so much easier to say, “He studies fish… or spiders” than to risk, “He’s an icthyologist…or an arachnologist.” If the root is a familiar word, even when of Greek origin, like anesthesia, we have little problem. Or if the word is thought of without regard to its being in two parts like anthology (literally, “a gathering of similar flowers”), or archaeology, it presents no challenge.

In modern times, many areas of scientific inquiry have had “–ology” added to them and work fine in our everyday language because we understand the root, as in climatology and angelology.

In American humor, we add all kinds of things up front of “-ology” to get a laugh or to be sarcastic, e.g., “I spend all this dough on tuition and my kid is studying “beerology.” Or, when asked to take out the trash: “What am I… a ‘garbologist’?”

As problematic as “-ologies” may be, English owes Greek a big debt: almost 30% of the 80,000 words educated people use derive from Greek.

Back to the intended question, I feel “etymology” is important because language is inextricable from history. Historic events, periods, and trends bring changes that are reflected in the words/language we use. Investigating the origin of a word can serve as the threshold to the study of some interesting aspect of history.

There are, of course, major events like the Norman Conquest that resulted in our language adapting to become one-third French…and a big story there!

On a smaller scale, consider two words: pajamas and shirtwaist. Also spelled pyjamas, it derives from the Persian peyjama, and was incorporated, via Hindustani, into English, during the Raj, the period of British colonial rule in South Asia (1857-1947), along with many other words including khaki, dungarees, and pundit. A parent might use the time of putting on the kids’ pajamas for a short etymology/history lesson, “Do you know where that word came from?”

The word shirtwaist, a woman’s upper body garment, fell out of use after the deadly and much publicized Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire one hundred years ago last month. “Blouse” replaced it, and the ILGWU was born. Etymology in the making!

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