Where do words come from?

When you are very small you hear the words “dog”, “cat”, “house”, “car”, “mom”, “dad” and just assume that it has always been like that.

As you get older you encounter new words like “selfie”, “defriend”, “doxx”, “bae”, “bling” and you might initially recoil. “What the hell is going on?! Back in my day we had proper words like cat and dog, not this ‘selfie’ nonsense”. I hate to break it to you, but words are coming into the language all the time and they always have.

Even words are seemingly commonplace as “lifestyle” only started being used in the modern sense in the 60s.

Other words have been around longer though, much longer. The word “house” dates back to the language of the Germanic tribes. Linguists call this language Proto Germanic. It was spoken during the bronze age a few millenia ago. The word probably goes back even further.

But where did the word originally come from? Where did any word actually come from? Surely at some point there was no need for the word “house” so the word didn’t exist back then. As our ancestors moved out of caves and moved into the savannah or forest they would eventually have needed a word to describe the thing that provided them shelter.

The further we go back in time the harder it is to find written evidence of words. Languages unfortunately do not leave fossils so we have to make educated guesses. Some suggest it might come from a much older word “(s)kew-” which meant to cover or hide. The “s” fell away and the “k” became an h. We can see the link between “house” and “casa”.

There is a much older language than even the language of the Germanic tribes and linguists call this language Proto Indo European. It is called this because the languages descended from it are spread all over Europe, the Middle East and even parts of India.

The people who spoke this language were called the Indo Europeans and it is generally believed they lived in the Pontic Steppes somewhere in the region of modern day Ukraine. Some of the Indo Europeans moved north and crossed the Baltic Sea, settling in Scandanavia. They would become the Germanic peoples.

Other Indo Europeans moved south and west and ended up in the Italian peninsula. Some of these people would go on to found Rome and spread Latin to large numbers of people all over Europe. In the languages of the Italian peninsula, and in other languages descended from the language of the Indo Europeans, the “k” sound never changed, so we have “casa” in modern Spanish.

The real answer to the question of where words come from is that they come from every place imaginable. The simple every day word “cat” could have come from a Nubian word “kaddîska”, an Arabic word qitta, or even a Northern Sami word gađfe which means a female short tailed weasel. If the Northern Sami etymology is true then it is just another example of semantic shift which means that the word changed meaning over time because of associations.

Semantic shift is a very common way for words to emerge. The English word “hound” is cognate (shares a common ancestor with) German “Hund”. In the 1300s in England the word “hound” was used as the general word for dogs. The word “dog” at the time referred to a specific kind of dog. One theory is that this type of dog was so common that when people talked about what type of dog they had, the word “dog” came up most of the time.

The word eventually became linked with the overall class and stopped meaning a specific type of dog. In an ironic twist, the word “hound” now means a type of dog, so “hound” and “dog” have completely switched meanings.

Another interesting semantic shift is the word “gay”. It started out in Proto Germanic as ganhuz meaning sudden. It came to mean “impetuous” in the language of the Goths, and eventually ended up in Old Occitan as “gai” meaning “lively”. The meaning shifted again later and ended up in French meaning “joyful, merry”. Stereotypes about homosexual people led to people using the word “gay” to describe them. Over time the meaning of “homosexual” came to dominate the use of the word and now the meaning of “lively” is long forgotten.

The word might be in the process of shifting again. Due to societal opinions about homosexuality, it picked up a negative sense and young people started using the word “gay” to mean anything bad. Amongst these people the word is not used to mean “homosexual” at all and is used to describe all sorts of things that have nothing to do with sexuality. If you asked the people who use it in this sense what the word means they might genuinely reply that it just means bad and to them there is no association to homosexuality at all.

Societal forces can produce a lot of new words and a lot of new meanings to words. Semantic shift can often be so complete that the original meaning is lost entirely. The “ejaculate” used to mean “to say suddenly” and it began to be used to refer to the male orgasm. Now that meaning dominates the sense of the word and its original meaning is all but forgotten.

Sex is an area of the human experience that has produced tons and tons of new expressions. Did you know that “intercourse” was once a perfectly normal word you could use at a fancy dinner party?

Just look at this quote from a Jane Austen novel

“They had no conversation together, no intercourse but what the commonest civility required”

Wow! Society really was different back then!

Actually, the word back then just meant “conversation”. It comes from Latin “intercursus” which meant “mingled with”. Its current meaning comes from a euphemism. Sex was sometimes called “sexual intercourse” as it was the mingling and connection between two people during sex. This euphemism was probably super useful and over time the “sexual” part was dropped and now there is only one association people have when they hear the word “intercourse”.

Some words come about just because of the sound of them. The word “poo” came out probably because that is the sound someone might make when they encounter something horrible.

All words have associations. Just think about the word “justice”. It conjures in your mind such things as stability, things in their right place, order, equality and equity. These are the things we associate with the practise of law and justice. We want to live in a stable society, for things to be in the right place, for things to be fair. It comes ultimately from Latin iūs which meant a law, right or duty.

Duty in itself does not mean equality or order. It is just something that needs to be done. But when you tie that up into a system of hearing disputes, the innate human desire for things to be handled correctly and for bad people to be punished and good people to be saved from bad people, this new word can start gathering all sorts of now associations.

These new associations can create new possibilities. The word is the root of the trees and its associations are the branches and leaves. A particular association might bud as an acorn, drop to the ground and create something completely new. So now we have the word “justification” which is an explanation for why something is “just”. Without the word “justice” and “just” the word “justification” never would have sprouted.

Its common in English nowadays to just talk of emailing someone. The word “email” started as a shortening of “electronic mail” but it has since taken on a life of its own. People don’t think “I will electronically mail you something this evening”. That concept is contained in the word “email”.

What new concepts, inventions and ideas will require new words or new associations to words in the common decades?

Before Facebook you could “befriend” someone, but people would never talk about “friending” someone. Or “defriending” for that matter. As the human experience changes, all the languages of the world find ways to express the new world they find themselves in. It is one of the things that makes writing about language so fun.

Thanks for reading 🙂

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