Though many of us talk way too much for our own good, few of us ever stop to think about where the words we speak originated. The fascinating history of everyday words can be found in the pages of Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus, compiled and edited by the folks at American Heritage Dictionaries.
Linguists and language aficionados will delight in this collection of the origins of hundreds of words, as well as the hidden and unexpected links between words that often date back over six thousand years. Seems our English language has its roots in Proto-Indo-European sources and has borrowed extensively from many world tongues to create our modern everyday usage of words.
The book also includes short histories of hundreds of words, along with black and white drawings and pictures that complement the word’s history and mystery. We learn about the origins of words that are as common as bless, comfort, fool and read, and those more unusual such as tantalize, syphilis, ukulele and janitor. Then there are those special words like naughty, gringo, humble pie and buccaneer. Each word is traced back to its original root source, and the words are presented in alphabetical order, which makes this book a fun and entertaining read for trivia buffs and history nuts, too.
I have always wondered where the word “milquetoast” comes from. Did you know there was a comic strip character named Casper Milquetoast, who was a real dull, wimpy sort of guy? In fact, he was a bit of a “sad sack,” another term that has its roots in a comic strip, as does the word “wimpy.” A “geezer,” by the way, refers to a queer character who would go about on Christmas Eve wearing a disguise. How that word came to mean a cranky old man is beyond me, and the book editors, but there you have it.
The word “surly,” another favorite of mine, comes from the root word, “churlish” which means “peasant.” Have a favorite “pal?” Then you can thank the Romany Gypsies for coming up with the word, which means “brother, comrade.” And the word “fornication,” another of my, oh never mind, comes from the Latin word “fornix” from which the word “fornicatio” was derived. Both root words mean “a vault, an arch,” and how they relate to sexual activity is left to the imagination.
Again, this book is filled with such entertaining and educational trivia, which is really not trivial at all, considering just how important language is to those of us who strive to use it on a regular basis. With the brief histories and fascinating anecdotes of over four hundred words, Word Histories and Mysteries is a blast for word lovers and for anyone who enjoys learning a little bit more about the history of modern English.