Tuesday, July 25, 2006

On Language, the Logos and the Origin of Words

I am fascinated by language...its forms and functions, its beauty and rhythm, its complexity and history.

And though this attraction certainly relates (as I’ve been told several times) to my occupation as a speaker and writer, I believe even more relevant to my deep interest in language are my avocations as a reader and conversationalist.

And, of course, not to be taken lightly, is the connection of language to my Christian faith. After all, Christianity is a religion revealed through the written word; the study of which involves careful attention to definitions, grammar, and comparative usage. Indeed, the gospel of John presents Jesus Himself as the Logos, the eternal Word of Life Who communicates (and, by His sacrifice on Calvary, secured) our salvation.

So, this fascination with language has several profound sources. Little surprise then that it has left many ongoing effects as well.

Among the areas of keen interest thus produced are my adventures in the history of English words and phrases. My library includes several wonderful books of this type. Among them are Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable revised by John Freeman, A Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris, A Hog on Ice and Other Curious Expressions by Charles E. Funk, and the more intensive volume, A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language first published in 1882 by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat.

A recent (and very welcome) addition to this little group is Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories by Wilfred Funk. This 1950 book came my way last month for $1 at a used book table at the 25th Annual G.K. Chesterton Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota. Wow -- comparing that single buck to the immense enjoyment I’ve already received from the book almost makes me feel like I should turn myself in.

Here’s a little taste of Funk’s charming perspective on etymology…

“It is unfortunate, in a way, that we learn words when we are so very young, for as we become adult we take these strange symbols for granted. By then there is little of mystery in them for us. We are apt to think vaguely that words just happened and were always so. We have no sharp feeling that they were born much as babies are born. That they are vibrant with life and are always changing. That they grow up and often, like us, take on the greater responsibilities that go with maturity. And that, by the end of their days, for die they often do, they will frequently have life histories as long and distinguished as human biographies in a copy of Who's Who.

“To know the past of an individual helps us to understand him the better. To know the life history of a word makes its present meaning clearer and more nearly unforgettable. And besides all this, the stories in and of themselves are often packed with romance and adventure and lead us far away into the fields of mythology and history and of great names and great events. Words truly are little windows through which we can look into the past.”