Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: etymology (1).

etymology (1). Today: English Etymology Generally. Etymology is the study of word derivations. Understanding etymology often leads to a greater appreciation of linguistic nuances. For example, “exorbitant” is Latin “ex-” (= out of, away from) + “orbita” (= a wheel track), hence “off track” or “out of line.” “Symposium” is Greek “syn-” (= together) + “posis” (= a drink). The term was extended from “a drinking party” to “a convivial meeting for intellectual stimulation,” then further to “a collection of articles published together on a given topic.” But making a fetish of etymology can lead to linguistic fallacies. For example, pedants object inflexibly to hybrids or morphological deformities. Some insist that “homophobe,” in Greek, would refer to a self-hater. But in today’s English, “homo” is a slang shortening of “homosexual,” and “homophobe” — though at variance with classical word formation — is perfectly understandable to any reasonable speaker of American English. The etymological “error” is no error at all. So learn all you can about etymology, but temper that knowledge with other types of linguistic facts. Then you’ll be in a position to choose words prudently. And you’ll be better equipped to answer questions such as these: Must “alternatives” be limited to two? Must a “magistrate” be the supreme judge in a jurisdiction? Does “inflammable” mean that something will ignite, or won’t? Next: Native vs. Classical Elements. For more information about the Language-Change Index click here. Quotation of the Day: “A trained dialect geographer can sometimes uncannily identify a speaker’s habitat within a few miles.” John E. Jordan, Using Rhetoric 9 (1965).
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