Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: etymology (3).

etymology (3). Today: Etymological Awareness. Through wide reading and a conscious sensitivity to words and their origins, good writers become aware of etymological associations that may escape others. Ignorance of etymologies can easily lead writers astray, as when a journalist gave the label “holocaust” (Gk. “burnt whole”) to a flood. Following are sentences in which writers wandered into etymological bogs: o “The right to exclude or to expel aliens in war or in peace is an inherent and inalienable right of every independent nation.” (The root “alien-” causes problems when we say that a country has an inalienable right to exclude aliens.) o “What we are concerned with here is the automobile and its peripatetic [= able to walk up and down, not just itinerant] character.” In the first specimen, an incongruous repetition of the root sense occurs. In the second, the writer has insensitively abstracted and broadened a word still ineluctably tied to its root sense. Next: Folk Etymology. For more information about the Language-Change Index click here. Quotation of the Day: “The division of words into parts of speech suits very well those languages which use many ending and internal changes. . . . But what if a language uses no endings, like Chinese, or has lost a great many of its ancient endings, like English today? In that case, we can either forget about classification, as the Chinese do, or fall back on a mixture of the few endings we have left plus the way the word is used, as we do in English.” Mario Pei, Language for Everybody 100-101 (1956).
Scroll to Top