July 10, 2014 by libroshombre
The old Scottish poet Allan Cunningham once wrote about a time “when looks were fond and words were few.” That was when etymology, “the study of the origins and development of words,” wasn’t needed. Often confused with entomology, the study of insects, etymology tracks how words and their meanings have morphed over time. Words abound here in the Information Age, and we need all the etymology we can get. Consider the debate over “soccer” and “football,” for example. Many British sports fans take umbrage over Americans calling their sport “soccer,” when the game was originally organized in England in 1863 as the Football Association.
Early American-style football was much like England’s, but it evolved into a sport “that mostly involves people doing things to the ball with their hands,” as noted in a recent NY Times article by Sarah Lyall titled “Up in Arms Over ‘Soccer.’” “Association football” provided rules that civilized the extremely violent ancient game that sprang up around the world in many civilizations, beginning with the ancient Chinese and Egyptians. Lyall described how a fad arose among college students in Victorian England “to add the infantilizing ‘er’ diminutive to random words,” and, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, they also enjoyed shortening names. So they abbreviated “Assoc.,” the abbreviation of “Association,” into “Soc,” which was “an unusual method of [word] formation, but those who did it perhaps shied away from making a name out of the first three letters of ‘Assoc.’”
“Discussing this exciting new sport in 1905 and 1906,” Lyall wrote, “the New York Times seized on ‘soccer’ as useful shorthand, particularly in space-challenging headlines. But only sometimes. Other times it spelled it ‘socker.’” The English spelling was “socca” in 1889, “socker” in 1891, and “soccer” in 1895. “The problem came in the 1970s and ‘80s,” Lyall cites Stefan Szymanski, a University of Michigan sports management professor saying. “As the sport became more of a force in the United States… [t]hat threatened people, and the English particularly … and caused them to go on violent rants on the topic of Americans’ obnoxious and perverse tendency to do things differently from everyone else.”
This illustrates the “recency illusion,” which linguist Arnold Zwicky defines as “the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent.” It’s discussed in an article in TheGuardian.com by David Shariatmandari titled “11 Words That Are Much Older Than You Think.” He describes a popular “prejudice about language: that it’s gradually deteriorating” and “is part of a broader cognitive bias that leads us to extrapolate from our own experience to make theories about the world … [t]hankfully, there’s a big chunk of actual data on the history of English to check our assumptions against: it’s called literature.”
Zwicky’s found a bunch of surprises by comparing modern lingo to written English. A modern hipster might say “I asked that babe to hang out in my crib, but she said ‘OMG! Not!’ So I unfriended her.” The Oxford English Dictionary states that “babe,” as in “She’s some babe,” appeared in the American Dialect Society’s journal in 1915. Shakespeare had King Henry the IV ask, “Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smokey cribs, Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee … Than in the perfumed chambers of the great?” “OMG,” meaning “Oh, my God,” was used in a 1917 letter to Winston Churchill from his predecessor as First Sea Lord.
George Eliot’s “Mill on the Floss” includes the line “She would make a sweet, strange, troublesome, adorable wife to some man or other … but he would never have chosen her himself. Did she feel as he did? He hoped she did – not.” And back in 1659 the English historian Thomas Fuller wrote an acquaintance, “I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference witch hath happened betwixt us.”
“All words are pegs to hang ideas on,” as Henry Beecher Ward wrote, and their usefulness to humankind is obvious. Civilization requires the ability to communicate abstract concepts, and words, spoken written, or thought, facilitate that process. That’s why libraries, where our printed words and ideas are preserved for the 500-year life expectancy of acid-free paper, remain so popular with the thinking public.