Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: etymology (2).

etymology (2). Today: Native vs. Classical Elements. The English language has benefited from diverse sources. This diversity springs mostly from the English Renaissance, when writers supplemented what they considered a meager vocabulary by borrowing freely from foreign languages, mostly Latin, French, and Greek. Thus William Caxton, who introduced printing into England in 1477, is credited with the first use of many words that have become common {admiration, capacity, desperate, nuptial, seduce}. But other borrowings withered away, coined not to fill any need but to indulge a particular writer’s penchant for the far-fetched. Thus, our historical dictionaries are brimming with strange and ridiculous formations that appeared only once or twice, such as “celeripedian” (= a swift footman) and “latrocination” (= highway robbery). Many sets of words formed from analogous etymological elements have coexisted in English for many centuries with the same basic meanings, such as the Greek “prophesy” and the Latin “predict.” Others have undergone differentiation to varying degrees, such as the Greek “sympathy” and the Latin “compassion.” In specialized writing, a knowledge of classical languages is especially helpful: Latin in law, for example, or Greek and Latin both in medicine. But regardless of your career path, it’s useful to enhance your awareness of Greek and Latin word roots. You’ll gain a greater sensitivity to the English language and its origins and nuances. Next: Etymological Awareness. For more information about the Language-Change Index click here. Quotation of the Day: “A writer uses abstract words because his thoughts are cloudy; the habit of using them clouds his thoughts still further; he may end by concealing his meaning not only from his readers but also from himself.” Sir Ernest Gowers, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 5 (2d ed. 1965) (in a Gower’s entry that didn’t appear in H.W. Fowler’s first edition).
Scroll to Top