I’m fascinated by etymologies. A few years back my interest took a sharp turn (for better or worse) when I bought an etymological dictionary. I don’t own a normal dictionary because the Internet usually suffices when I need a definition. However, a physical copy of an etymological dictionary has become a necessity. Because of this interest, I thought I would share a few of my favorite etymologies.

Romance is an example of a word that has taken some interesting linguistic turns since its birth. The original significance of romance was something closer to what we meaning when we talk of Romance languages; languages derived from Latin, the native tongue of the the Romans. It originally designated stories written in a romance language, as opposed to the Latin itself. Over time the word romance came to be associated as much with the content of these vernacular stories as with the languages in which they were written. These romances, especially the Old French tales, typically narrated the adventures of chivalrous knights and their deeds in the service of beautiful maidens. Thus, at some point in time, someone writing a tale about chivalry in German, a non-romance language, could also be said to be writing a romance. These stories provide the context from which later centuries would re-appropriate the word romance.

The Romantic movement in the 19th century used romance to refer to “an adventurous or imaginative quality” in a piece of art or a person. Twentieth century readers of these stories were drawn to the erotic, what we could call the romantic, element of these stories. (The connotations of the word erotic itself have changed in recent times). Therefore, the first use of romance in our modern sense to denote “a love affair, [or] idealistic quality in a love affair, is found in 1916.” In an odd turn of events the Romans, known for their military prowess and praise of manly courage, gave us Romance.

Poet and Poem
These two words find their origin in the Greek verb poieō, meaning to make, create, or do. A poem, in Greek thinking, is then something that is made or created, while a poet is a maker, doer, or creator. Since then we have narrowed the significance of poieō quite a bit. We associate poetry with the making of lines of verse, or more popularly as expressing one’s individual emotions. However, I think we can’t ignore the recognition made by the Greeks that poetry and making are connected. Poetry is a craft, just like woodworking or baking; part learned skill and part inspiration. You might also say that there is an element of poetry in these crafts as well.

Our modern English word gospel is used to translate the work euangélion in the Greek New Testament. Euangélion is a compound of eu-, a prefix meaning good, and angélion, a word meaning message. (Angélion is derived from ángelos meaning messenger, from which we get the word angel.) Old English took euangélion, via Latin, and turned it into gōdspell. Gōd, as you may have guessed, means good. Spell is a story, speech, or collection of words. Ironically, it has come to refer to a magical incantation and the act of writing or saying a word letter by letter. A gōdspell is quite literary a good story. This is also the origin of the word godspeller, an archaic name for an evangelist. The similarity between gōd and god was probably not lost on early English speakers, drawing attention to the way that the Good-story is also a God-story. In time the spelling and pronunciation of gōdspell lost the d and an l. The long ō became a short o. Hence we have the word gospel.

Science, like poem, is an example of a word whose meaning has narrowed from that of its roots. Science comes from the Latin verb scīre, meaning to know. Indeed, the Latin word for knowledge is scientia. Around the the 17th and 18th century, through the influence of thinkers like Francis Bacon, scientia began to be used to refer to a specific type of knowledge, that found by observation and experimentation. Thus science lost its significance as knowledge in general and came to refer to empirical knowledge about the natural world.

To write this post I relied heavily on my trusty Etymological Dictionary: The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology: The Origins of American English Words and Wikitionary.


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