Origins Breathe Life Into Words

By Rob Kyff

April 17, 2019 3 min read

Studying the origins of words can seem like an esoteric enterprise, relegated to nerdy scholars poking around in dusty dictionaries. But sometimes knowing a word's history can inspire us and even improve our lives.

Consider the word "inspire" itself. We all know it means "to influence, guide or motivate," but learning that it's derived from the Latin "spirare" (to breathe) and originally meant "to breathe life or divine spirit into someone" expands and oxygenates our verbal and emotional lungs.

Similarly, "vocation" can seem like a pedestrian, work-a-day word until we learn that it's derived from the Latin "vocare" (to call). So, our vocation isn't just our job or profession; it's what we're called or summoned to do by destiny or divinity. This thought can be ennobling, especially while we're sitting through an interminable staff meeting.

Like "inspire," several words with uplifting derivations are associated with parts of the body. When faced with a daunting challenge, it's heartening to know that "courage" derives from the Latin word for the heart ("cor"), and that "pluck" originally referred to the inner organs — heart, liver, lungs — in other words, guts.

Etymological wisdom can also inspire kindness, forgiveness and acceptance. We're less likely to make a cutting remark when we know that "sarcastic" comes from a Greek word meaning "to strip the flesh off." The whims of a capricious person annoy us much less when we picture a frolicking goat, for "capricious" is associated with the Latin "caper" (goat).

The bureaucratic processes of the DMV can become a bit less annoying when we know that "rigmarole" is derived from "ragman's roll," a frivolous medieval game involving paper and string. And knowing that "disaster" comes from the Italian "disastro" (a negative consequence of the stars, i.e., fate) can make misfortune a little more bearable.

Other etymologies simply provide comfort. When we meet someone's "long-time companion," it's nice to picture the couple sitting down and eating bread together, for "companion" derives from the Latin "com" (together) and "panis" (bread).

Perhaps my favorite etymologically inspiring word is "integrity." Derived from the Latin "integer" (whole, complete), "integrity" reaches beyond simple honesty to describe someone who possesses unity and soundness of character. Such wholeness isn't easy to attain, but it's a concept that can inspire us as we seek truth in ourselves and the world.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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