“In a language like ours, so many words of which are derived from other languages, there are few modes of instruction more useful or more amusing than that of accustoming young people to seek the etymology or primary meaning of the words they use. There are cases in which more knowledge, of more value, may be conveyed by the history of a word than by the history of a campaign.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Aids to Reflection, Aphor. 12.
To my mind, words are man’s crowning achievement. They are more enduring than his monuments, institutions or buildings. In fact, they serve as building blocks for every edifice he has ever created; they are integral to his work on earth.
Languages are living, evolving creatures with a past, present and future. They clothe the spirit of the times, while providing a nexus between the temporal and the eternal. Each and every word we have the privilege of using was conceived and brought into the world by man.
I’ve had a long-standing fascination with words, a love affair which stretches into my earliest memories. When I was in school I underlined every word I looked up in my trusty dictionary (the old-fashioned paper kind), and by the end of my secondary schooling the well-worn pages of my dictionary gave evidence of my passionate inquiry into the heart of a great many words.
Every word has a primary meaning. Examination of the primary meaning, in the sense of its earliest definition, is like looking into the DNA of a cell. You can learn a lot from it. It tells a rich and fascinating story and gives clues about the zeitgeist of its youth. Its structure, place of birth, original language, and so on paint a picture, which, like a picture, is worth a thousand words.
Every word also has a primary meaning in the sense of its principal meaning. This meaning changes over time. Words, and the memes packed into them, tend to evolve. Words reflect and advance cultural developments. They symbolize man’s consciousness, which makes a review of their shifting meanings a study of man himself.
The next time you look up a word, take a minute to explore its etymology. But take care to make it more than a mental exercise. Listen to its story. Place your hand upon its heart. Feel its pulse. It is a living, evolving creature with more to share than you might imagine.