web analytics

The Frisson of Etymological Discovery

Every word has a history. But the history of most words in a speaker’s vocabulary is obscured from view until discovered, often serendipitously and rarely by dint of inquiry. For ordinary language use the etymology of a word need not be known to speakers in order for them to have a command of the lexical stock of a language. Words are tokens absorbed unreflectively in the process of acquiring a language’s lexis, and whose meaning seems largely to have been established by convention along with the habits of their proper usage.

Occasionally, however, even a professional linguist can experience the thrill of etymological discovery. This is what happened today to Y-H-B while reading a history of music and learning that the word conservatory, which now means a music school in all the European languages, goes back to the Italian conservatorio and its original meaning ‘orphanage’ (= a hospital or school for orphans and foundlings). It seems that orphans were “conserved” in institutions that, besides giving them housing and sustenance, trained them in music so as to enable them to make their way in the world when they left the orphanage.

For someone who loves language, the experience of learning the etymology of a word for the first time is akin to hearing a passage of music performed with great skill by a virtuoso. Closer to home, the linguistic experience akin to the musical one can only be realized, for instance, by hearing the inexhaustibly rich explanations of such an expert as Y-H-B’s lifelong friend, the great Finnish-American Indo-Europeanist and Fennicist Raimo Anttila, whose knowledge of word origins can only be called miraculous.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Leave a Comment

220 feed subscribers
Categories
Archives
Readers with non-commercial queries and a personal e-mail address can click here:

Michael Shapiro: Sound and Meaning in Shakespeare's Sonnets
ePub $2.49 | Mobi $2.49

Michael Shapiro: The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage

For free email notification of new blog posts, please enter your address in the field below, and then click Subscribe.



Michael Shapiro's Upcoming Appearances