The etymological Frankenstein’s monster that is the English language

If Latin is the esteemed matriarch of many of Europe’s language, English is that too friendly daughter who constantly looses herself in the woods with one companion or another. A slightly less romantic metaphor is the one brought up in the title to this odd post; the image of the patchwork creature known as Frankenstein’s monster, Adam.

English, like Adam, is a construct of many components coming from different sources, all of which had some role in shaping the language into what we know today. Latin, old Norse, Norman French, even Celtic, all gave English this or that, words, grammar rules, or what have you. This is one of the reasons English, as a whole (not any one standard of English) probably has at least twice as many lexemes in its lexicon than less… inclusive languages, such as German or French.

For English, this created a rather interesting and useful phenomenon: stratification. To give an example of stratification, consider the words “ask”, “question”, and “interrogate” (this was my linguistics professor’s favorite example). They all basically mean the same thing if you think about it, present a question or a series of questions to someone, but they don’t, do they? “Ask”, a word of Germanic, old English origin, is the most basic one, you can ask someone the time, or ask them to leave, or ask for a cup of sugar. The theory is that because it was of Germanic origin, it was the most immediate word for simple people in the middle ages (when Norman French began influencing English after the Norman conquest) and simple people (uneducated farmers) would discuss simple things. “Question”, a word originating in French, is a bit more complicated (as a verb). You can question conventions, you can question authority, you can question a witness, you can’t question for a cup of tea. This, theoretically, is because, as the Normans brought the word with them to the aristocracy, it was a word almost exclusively used in government, academia, religion (which at the time WAS academia), or philosophy, which led for the word being reserved for more sophisticated, higher matters. Last but not least, “interrogate”, which comes from Latin, is highly official, as can be seen by its use predominantly in legal matters. Latin was a language spoken only by the educated elites, who had higher functions in government, law, religion, and finances. This led to the word, and many other words stemming from Latin, to be highly “regulated” in its use.

Now, what does this mean for writing, you ask (assuming you haven’t fallen asleep from my ranting)? Simple, we are spoiled for choice. I recently had a lively conversation with my sister on the topic (she writes fan-fiction for anime shows, good ones, not the dirty kind) and she asked me about choosing words. She herself chooses her words in the moment, moving fluently through her writing, while I painstakingly stop and think about the precise meaning of the word and its connotations for up to several hours (not literally, I would continue writing and get back to that pesky word later). Of course I don’t mean every word, “the” is simply “the”, but sometimes I can’t help but think that there is a better word out there, something that expresses exactly what I mean without needing to elaborate on it or needing to waste a whole sentence on something that can be expressed with a single word.

My own example from my writing would be my use the word “atavistic” to describe fear as opposed to “primal” (look it up). I suppose this is also a bit of a way to show off one’s impressive vocabulary, but more than that, it’s economy in words and creating the right impression in the reader’s mind.

It doesn’t have to be obscure words that have fallen into disuse in the mid 1800’s, knowing which word to choose not just for its bare, lexical definition, but for its social, cultural, and historical significance is a tool any writer should be able to use, especially those writing more condensed genres such as poems, flash fiction or short stories.

The only real way to acquire this skill is to read, a lot, and the right things. Read the classics, read writers of more literary novels or short stories. A little shortcut can be the use of a good thesaurus or an urban dictionary (depending on what you’re writing). But a thesaurus only gives you synonyms, not their exact meaning. It is your job to find the one that you need. Don’t be ashamed of looking stuff up, that is how you better yourself. One thing a friend of mine used to do (she is my age, her 30’s) is a “word of the day” type thing, or write down words she’d read somewhere and needed to look up, so that she could add them to her vocabulary.

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