On Words: A Love Letter

For National Grammar Day, I am thinking about my lifelong love affair with words. Not commas or semicolons, true, but without words where would grammar be?

As a kid, I remember thinking Gallagher’s bit on English was re-vo-lu-tion-ary. Perhaps this, from George Carlin, is more apropos now, even though it came out the year I was born and even though jumbo shrimp is played out.

My dear friend and go-do-it evangelist Jill recently tweeted some love to Visual Thesaurus, a site I shared with her because of our mutual love affair with words. Visual Thesaurus creates relationships between words via a word map. On a snowy drive home last week I was thinking about these relationships between words. The connection between, yet ultimately different usefulness, of a word like irritate versus a word like annoy is what make me love language. I dig a site like Visual Thesaurus because it, well, visualizes those relationships and lets me wander from a word to its next door neighbor, then down the street to a different part of speech to see what’s up in that ‘hood.

And those connections and differences, whether subtle or not, got me thinking about etymology. I recognize and appreciate that the origin is not the whole story. Evolution and use matter oh so much too. But I believe, here, in the creation story. The creation of a word.

Perhaps because English is such a never-returned-cuppa-sugar language, learning about from whence a word came matters to me. Knowing that Shakespear coined over 500 words or that there is a collective sigh when the OED awards YOLO for the American word of 2012 while the British get the delightful omnishambles makes me a-flutter. Or contemplating why they added OMG so quickly but it took so damn long to add substitute teacher. I love the OED’s Twitter feed, which crowdsources (though it’s not a word in the OED) wordy stuff, looking to see if its nerdling followers have some insight into an origin.

When I taught, it was about exploring a word like algebra with my world history students and noting how obvious it is that such a word, exploring mathematics, comes to us from Arabic, from a culture rooted in math & science while English danced with the Dark Ages (and helps explain Arabic numerals to kids who didn’t realize they were using them). Or just what makes an atheist different from an agnostic when we talked about religion. The roots mattered. They explained. (And yes, we talked about words that didn’t start with -A-.)

Now, it’s about my everyday writing life. This blog, my work, emails, and Facebook and Twitter. Despite how digital it all is, I’m still firmly rooted in words. I work to explain to clients why a word shift or change or a tense choice impacts the message, that what we’re building is meaning through words and that those words matter.

And, sure, it’s about as dorky as you can get. I respect that. But I’ve come to realize my love of language isn’t all that different from what I’m looking for in my relationships with real, live people. I’m looking for backstory. I love knowing a word’s story in the same way I love knowing why a friend reacts the way they do to a compliment, or why a particular partner is oh-so-right for a friend based on who they were before they met. Backstory is the backbone, the history I am privileged to get to learn. It makes me a better friend a better partner, and I think a better writer. I want to know the story behind the people or ideas I write for with the same urgency I want to know the backstory of a word I want to use to talk about them. Perhaps it’s over-therapied of me to draw out how that search for insight into the people I know and love could, and would, also inform my obsessive relationship with etymology. But, well, that’s my backstory and I’m sticking to it.

So, happy National Grammar Day. Whether you avoid the words or dive straight into the deep end, may you find meaning and connection and whatever else it is you’re looking for.  And, in looking to see what other etymology resources are out there, I found this. Enjoy!

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