Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Language Day: Word Origins and Bliss

Wednesday is language day at Gimme Bliss, and today I want to talk about word origins. Last week, I wrote about the need to be specific in language, which helps you articulate what it is you want to say to yourself and to others.

One way to achieve this is to examine the origins and evolution of words, a field known as etymology. (No, not bugs.) Basically, etymology examines the first known appearance of a word, its original meaning, and how it has changed over time.

If you're a word nerd like me, you'll love this stuff. Even if you think words are for email and talking and anything beyond that is for Scrabble freaks or bookworms, you can still get something out of delving a little deeper.

First, here are some etymology resources:
  1. The Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto
  3. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology
(The first is a fine place to begin, though not extensive; the second is a very thorough, user-friendly guide of over 8,000 words; the last is a beautiful beast that covers over 25,000 words, and is probably only for the most zealous.)

So, how can knowing the history of a word bring you to your bliss? Well, sometimes we forget that words contain multitudes. We speak quickly, skim emails, don't stop to think that words are tiny, portable antiques with all the richness and patina of their travels through history. (Well, maybe not ginormous, but I digress. And besides, ginormous might be considered quite formal in 2752.)

For example, did you know that the word deer once was the Old English word for 'animal'? Or that villain once simply meant 'farmer'? Probably not. After all, why would you worry about what people who have been dead for 600 years thought a word meant? Well, you certainly wouldn't want to worry about it every day, but in times of contemplation, it might be instructive, helpful, even encouraging to know what the big idea words--bliss, courage, bravery, passion--hold within them.

Courage has the root for 'heart' within it. Bliss carries the Germanic meaning 'gentle, kind' as its source. Bravery has at its root the senses 'uncivilized, savage, wild.' The word passion originally meant 'suffering.'

So basically, if you follow your bliss, you are a gentle, yet uncivilized, suffering heart. Well, who wouldn't sign up for that job description?

Kidding aside, you realize, if you are on this journey, that following your bliss might make you less angry. When you no longer are behaving inauthentically, you might be less prone to snap at people, flip them off in traffic. If you pursue your dreams with courage, it makes sense that you are first and foremost leading with your heart. If you are bravely pursuing a conscious life, you are likely on the outer edge of societal acceptance, seeming a bit wild and uncivilized to the more conventional around you. And when you have found your passion, you probably recognize you must make sacrifices to obtain it, and that its attainment will not be without struggle and heartache.

It makes a little more sense now, doesn't it?

Pursue any words that keep recurring to you. If you are pondering why you are so afraid to take the leap, look up the word fear. (Originally meaning 'danger, peril'.) If you are at what feels like rock bottom, look up despair. (Etymologically, 'lack of hope.')

You get the picture. Once you have a handle on the words that describe your feelings, your situation, you gain an appreciation for the forces working with and against you, and suddenly, you have a better sense of how to harness and deflect these forces. In other words, know thine friends and thine enemies.

Yes, they're just words, but the proverb "The pen is mightier than the sword" would not carry the weight it still does if there was not force and power and history behind them.

Related posts:
Better Living Through Editing

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