Where did that word come from? The Authors Collection.

FCEtier's desk top filled with books.
FCEtier’s desk top filled with books.

“It means, ‘god within,’” said the speaker, Will Moody. We were in a staff meeting, and the topic was how to deal with a common misconception in the market about our product. Often our prospects considered the mention of becoming more enthusiastic as something to avoid. They confused it with mindless aerobic jumping around and shouting.

FCEtier, author and artist
FCEtier, author and artist

Will and I were involved in the Dale Carnegie Training business together in the mid-eighties. The founder, Dale Carnegie, was a loyal advocate of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the behavior some people associated with enthusiasm was erroneous. Will went on to point out that Wilfred Funk had written about the origin of the word in his classic work, Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories. “Enthusiasm” has English and Greek roots with an ancestry that includes both the old English, giddy and the Greek, enthusiastes.

Since the sixth grade, I’ve been an avid reader.

I now have a new interest in words.

I’ve always wondered about writing. For instance, did the author carefully consider every word or just the main story points?

I discovered the answer.

Two years ago, I began writing a book. It went live on Amazon in October of 2012. I struggled and agonized over every single word — every verb, each adjective, but no adverbs. Dialog wasn’t too difficult. My family tree is full of talkers. But, what would each character say and how would they say it? Could I tell the majority of the story with dialog?

Which word would a character use? And why? Have I given enough information about the character so that his or her choice of words wouldn’t seem, well, out of character?

Readers expect writers to use just the right word in just the right situation.

So, where do the words come from?

TheTouristKiller-3dLeft-245x300I always expected authors to have superb vocabularies — or a handy thesaurus. It stands to reason that if writers know the genealogy of words, it becomes easier to select the one that fits the situation best.

Funk’s tome was published in 1950 and has, at least for me, become a handy reference. Over the years, I’ve read various chapters and snippets but never completed the entire book. I’m working on it now. Maybe by the time I finish my third book, I’ll complete Funk’s.

Let’s consider the political term, gerrymander (child of a salamander).

In 1812, the Massachusetts legislature ingeniously contrived to rearrange the shape of Essex County. Wonder why? The result, on a map, resembled a salamander. The governor at that time was a man named Elbridge Gerry.  A clever newspaper editor combined the two words to coin a term still used today by the party in power to control elections.

For one more example we consider a significant word in the book’s title, romance.

The Romance languages include French, Italian, Spanish, and others deriving from the vernacular Latin, which dates back to the beginning of Rome itself. From the book, “The word romance is from the Old French term Romans, a derivation of Romanus, ‘Roman.’ One of the early meanings of romance was a song or story in the popular tongue of the day.”  Frequently these tales focused on a hero and his lady — not too different from today’s usage.

Funk begins with a brief introductory chapter about poems, pictures, and metaphors, the beginnings of our language. In Chapter Two, we learn about words of speaking and writing, including the alphabet and such important words as blurb, cliche, euphemism, dictionary, glossary, italics, and a word authors love, manuscript. Twenty chapters filled with history, informative anecdotes, and obscure facts lead readers to the concluding chapter, “The Making of 50,000 Words,” with more on the history of language.  A twenty-one page index makes this classic history of words a valuable reference work.

Often times a significant aspect of a story, chapter, or book hinges on one specific word. If you are the author, doesn’t it make sense to know where it came from before befriending it?

Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories by Wilfred Funk will continue to occupy a place of honor on my desk and will be one book to which I refer writers of all genres, from personal letters to e-mail and blogs.

 Please click the book cover to read more about the novel on Amazon.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • A great resource, Chip. Thanks for the Origin of Words. Just when I think I’ve lived long enough to find everything of importance, here comes something new.

  • Gae-Lynn Woods

    I agree with you, Chip, that word choice is import not only for moving the story along, but also for keeping characters in character. Thanks for the reference.

    • Dialog is worthless if it’s out of character.
      Thanks for the comment, Gae-Lynn.

  • Darlene Jones – Author

    Will have to pick up a copy. Thanks for this info.

  • marthaorlando

    I feel a “Funk” coming on! Thanks for this great advice, Chip. Understanding the origin of the words we use can only serve to enhance our craft.

    • Matha!
      How clever of you!
      A great choice of words, my friend.

  • I’ve always been fascinated by the origin of words…in part because it’s always helped me learn other languages (7 languages over my lifetime…I only remember 4 now, LOL!) Thanks for sharing, a delightful read!

Related Posts