The Creative Exploration of Language

Tag Archives: Etymology


I never believed that shambolic was a real word until I looked it up.  While the word is clearly related to shambles, its limited and specific use, along with its non-standard feel, give it an air of unreality.  In fact, I had only ever come across the word in one particular context, as a derogotary description of a British football team’s defending (e.g., Liverpool’s defending has been absolutely shambolic!).

Despite its unfamiliarity, its relationship to shambles and the context in which I had heard it being used made its meaning as something that is a ‘mess’ very clear.  However, the arcane nature of shambolic indicates that something described as such is not just any mess, but something truly disastrous.  This led me to question what type of special mess could be meant by the use of shambolic or, for that matter, shambles.

As it turns out, shambolic has a long and interesting history that provides a surprising answer to that question.  It comes down to us in its present form from the Old English word sceamel, which itself derives from the Latin term scamnum, meaning ‘bench’.  As the word developed in English into shambles, it took on the connotation of a butcher’s bench, the bench on which butchers did their messy work.

Over time, the specific connotation of a butcher’s bench became the dominant one and shambles became a synonym for a butcher’s shop or even a slaughterhouse; in other words, a literal bloody mess.  Eventually, the literal level of meaning was lost and it is tempting to see the ‘bloody’ aspect as fading into the figurative, which, in my opinion, causes the word to lose some of its inherent power.

So, the next time you hear a British football commentator (or anyone else) describe a team’s defending as shambolic, don’t just think of their back four as being a bit disorganized, think of it as a bloody, gory mess.


I have always seen perdition as a poetic and romantic word, as if I instincually understood that it was a word which has two levels of meaning, both of which are interesting.  The word is a variation on the Old French perdiciun, derived from the Latin perditionem, which means “destruction” or “ruin”.  However, perdition carries with it special connotations that are intriguing.

The first meaning of perdition is the simplistic, religious one, where it acts as a synonym for “hell”.  While I have less affection for this meaning because in this context it is simply replacing an English word, I still can’t help but be somewhat taken in by the borrowed glamour of its more figurative and poetic meaning as a state of total and hopeless ruination.  What I find so compelling about the word is that the condition implied is ongoing, as if one is beyond hope or help, forever lost.  It is easy to see why the word became associated, presumably in medieval or early modern times, with the Christian concept of hell, a place of eternal suffering.

A further layer of meaning is uncovered if one looks further into the Latin perditio.  As it turns out, it derives from the base verb perdere.  When one breaks down the parts of the Latin root perditio, which are per-, which means “away”, and –dare, which means “to give” or “to put”, a sense of culpability, of wastefulness, is attached to the word.

Perdition can then be understood as a state of ongoing and utter ruination brought upon oneself by poor choices and it works equally well in religious and secular terms.  I think that the word would be even more interesting if used in contexts that highlight or reveal this sense.


The word bashful came to mind recently and I realized that, while I understood its meaning, I didn’t understand how the meaning was arrived at.  In short, I realized that I had no idea what “bash” meant.

When I looked into it, I was surprised to find that “bash” actually comes from a French root, “abaissier”, which means “to humiliate” or “to bring low”.  In this case, the word seems to have been adopted into English and altered to sound, and be used, like an English word.

The meaning has changed slightly in English to mean shy or timid rather than humiliated.  Bashful, then, means to be full of shyness.  What I find interesting is the way that the French word was absorbed and modified until it reached a point where it looks and sounds like a native English word.  This seems not to be the case very often.

For instance, a word like office is incongruous because it involves pronouncing the letter “c” in a way that is not natural in English.  In other words, office is obviously a foreign loan word, while bashful masquerades successfully as a Anglo-Saxon.


Sound is an interesting word because, despite its relative simplicity, it carries a number of extremely divergent meanings.  As is often the case with English homonyms, this is due to words entering the language from other languages with which it came into contact.  In the case of sound, this would be Norman French and Old Norse.

When considering sound in a modern context, three potential meanings quickly come to mind.  The first, and native English, meaning is to be whole or healthy.  The word is still used in this context relatively often (e.g., in phrases like of sound mind) and in phrases relating to inanimate objects (e.g., determining that a set of stairs is sound.).  As might be expected, there are strong cognates in German (gesund, Gesundheit) and Dutch (gezond, gezondheid).

The second meaning that comes to mind easily is something that is heard.  This meaning came into English via French (son), itself derived from the Latin sonus, which both carry this meaning.  The word morphed in Middle English into soun and from there seems to have been modified further into a more familiar form by adding a ‘d’.  In this case the equivalent terms in German and Dutch (klingen and klink, respectively) do still have a cognate in English, which is clinkClink, however, also seems to have been borrowed from Dutch and refers in English to a specific type of sound and not sound in general.

The third meaning of sound that comes to mind immediately is of a narrow body of water, either between two landmasses or between an island and the mainland.  Two well known examples from the United States are Puget Sound and Long Island Sound.  This meaning comes from the Old Norse word sund, which was used to describe just such a body of water.  The same word also exists in Old English, but seems to be indirectly related, as it holds a meaning related to swimming.  As with the Latin-derived term described above, there seems to have been an effort to make the word conform to comfortable patterns by changing the spelling and pronunciation, in this case by adding a vowel.

English is perhaps uniquely susceptible to these types of overlaps and inconsistencies due to the amount of borrowing that has gone on from other languages over the centuries.  However, the issue has been exacerbated by the fact that, unlike other languages such as French, German and Afrikaans to name a few, there is no board or commission designated to oversee the language and institute rational reform or even consistency within the language.

As a native English speaker, I recall being baffled as a child at English spelling conventions such as pronouncing “laugh” as “laf” and I have always marvelled at the ability of people around the world to learn what to me seems to be a largely non-sensical and capriciously structured language.  Having spent a considerable amount of time studying other languages, I find that it is hugely helpful to have reliable rules and phonetic spelling applied to a language and I believe English could benefit greatly from this.


Dependent is a common word that is generally understood and one that is well established in English, as evidenced by its many uses and variations.  It is most frequently used in one of two ways, either as a noun (e.g., such as when noting how many dependents one has on a form), or as an adjective (e.g., X is dependent on Y).

Dependent comes to us, as do so many words in Modern English, from Latin (dēpendēntem), via French (dépendant) and is made up of two main elements: de- meaning “from” and -pendent referring to something that hangs.  So, dependent means something that hangs off (or “hangs on”) something else.

I know that many view the different registers available in English (Romance vs. Germanic in everyday speech, and Latin in academic and professional situations), as a strength, but I cannot help but see it as a fundamental weakness.

The reason for this is that when we use a word like dependent, very few of us can assign any meaning or context to the word outside of the rote memorization of its definition, since its separate parts mean nothing in and of themselves to the average English speaker.  For this reason, the word lacks depth, much like a cardboard cutout when compared to an actual person.

Contrast this situation with other Germanic languages and the difference is starkly apparent.  In German, Afrikaans, Dutch and Norwegian, the words for dependent are abhängig, afhanklik, afhankelijk and avhengig, respectively.  Based on a review of this list, it is relatively easy to reconstruct likely Modern English cognates, such as offhanger (noun) and offhanging (adjective).  While these words might seem new or even made up to modern ears, they do clearly communicate the idea being expressed in a simple manner.

They achieve this clarity because they are made up of two commonly used and understood English words.  This instant familiarity and understanding imbues the word with a sense of depth, nuance and poetry that is born from the associations the speaker or reader brings to the word parts.

So, should one reconstruct new words based on words commonly used in Modern English?

My answer to this question would be: yes and no.  In many cases, new words don’t have to be created, because there are already extant words from Old English that have the same meaning but have been superseded by Romance or Latin terms.  In other cases, if a word simply did not exist in an older version of English or is not attested, a new term should be constructed based on solid linguistic foundations and research.

In the case of dependent, there is an Old English word, gelang, that was used in adjectival situations, but as the meaning of this term is less clear to a Modern English speaker,  would support the reconstruction noted above that sticks close to the pattern of the other Germanic cognates.

While many would scoff at such efforts, I believe that we as writers and lovers of the English language, and language in general, are fully justified and even obligated to explore the possibilities offered by this process.


One can often make speculative but very interesting assumptions about the relationships between words within the same language or language family based on similarities in the sound and placement of consonants.  The reason consonant sounds are the key is that they tend to remain relatively static over time and to change their pronunciation less between different dialects and languages than do vowel sounds, which change with every regional accent one encounters.

As an example of the relative stability of consonants, consider Germanic cognates for the English word house: haus in German, huis in Dutch and Afrikaans and hus in the Scandinavian languages.  All of these words demonstrate the foundational elements of an initial ‘h’ and final ‘s’ with a vowel or diphthong in the middle.  There are many such examples, and I won’t belabor the issue further other than to point out that these relationships are not always obvious due to changes in the way consonants and consonant clusters are treated as languages evolve over time.

I got onto this line of thinking when I encountered the word donker, which means ‘dark’ in both Dutch and Afrikaans.  From here, it was an easy leap to connect this word to its German cousin dunkel, which has the same meaning.  There seemed to me to be a pattern in Germanic languages in which words for ‘dark’ were anchored by an initial ‘d’ sound and an ‘nk’ cluster.  So far, so good.

However, when I attempted to complete the transfer into English, I encountered an obstacle, in that ‘dark’ does not follow this pattern.  It has an initial ‘d’, but rather than having an ‘nk’ consonant cluster, it has ‘rk’.

After doing some research, I established that ‘dark’ evolved from a different root word, Old English deorc, which was a more metaphorical term that had the connotation of being hidden or obscure.  As it turns out, the English word that fits the overall Germanic pattern best is ‘dank’.

‘Dank’ is interesting in this context because it carries with it not only a connotation of being dark, but also of being wet and, for that matter, cold.  Next, I searched for other Germanic cognates that might line up more closely with “dank’ and found one in the first place I looked: the Old Norse word dökk, which is an adjective meaning ‘dark’ and is used in many compound expressions such as dökk-hárr (‘dark hair’)However, as a noun, it had the meaning of ‘pool’ or  ‘water hole’, which ties the two concepts of darkness and wetness together.

From an auditory perspecitve, the reason that dökk can be considered to be cognate with ‘dank’ is that in Old Norse (and in modern Scandinavian languages) the ‘n’ sound before the ‘ngk’ consonant cluster has been lost.  As an example, the English word ‘drink’ translates into modern Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish as drekka, drikke and dricka, respectively.

This now brings us to an interesting point in that the question of what the connection is between darkness and water seems to be relevant.    As I have indicated in other posts, I have noticed a tendency for the root meanings of works to hark back to primordial conceptions that often have much in common with religious or esoteric ideas.

In this case, the primordial esoteric concept being evoked is that of ‘the waters’, which are a symbol of potential, reflecting the ancient conception (and echoed in modern scientific explanations of life) that all thing arise from water.

Darkness and water therefore represent, in a deep linguistic sense, the concept of potential (viewed positively) or chaos (viewed negatively).  In both cases, principle acts to obscure or hide things that are under development; out of water comes life and out of darkness comes light.


The word tarnation popped into my head the other day and I realized that I had no idea what it meant.  I had always had the sense that it was some type of Americanism and, like many Americanisms, that it was also a euphemism.  Beyond those vague impressions, I had never thought much about the word since the last time I had heard it from the mouth of Yosemite Sam many years ago.

I can’t recall what brought it to my mind now, but as I looked into it, I found that there are two competing theories in relation to where the word comes from.  The first is that it is simply a variant version of ‘darnation’, an American euphemism for ‘damnation’.

The second theory is that it is actually a combination of two words that make up a euphemistic phrase.  The original phrase was ‘eternal damnation’, which, in some 19th Century American accents, could be pronounced as ‘etarnal damnation’.  From here, the words were simply combined into a new word, ‘tarnation’, which combined elements from both words in the phrase.  This process is reminiscent of the one which formed the Elizabethan euphemism ‘zounds’, which was a somewhat tortuous combination of ‘God’s wounds’.

Whichever theory is correct, both methods are interesting and represent potentially fruitful areas to explore for modern language lovers, whether they are writers or not.  New terms and modifications such as those that produced the word ‘tarnation’ are valid linguistic expressions, though, as with other creative uses of language, I believe that the writer bears the responsibility to ensure that any new words created proceed from legitimate antecedents and are not simply created ex nihilo.


As I have heard and seen the word risible used, it has always meant something like ridiculous or preposterous, even spurious.

However, this is a somewhat accretionary meaning that has developed over time since the word came over from French.  It is originally descended from the Latin word ridere, which means to laugh, combined with the suffix -ibilis, meaning to be able.  So, risible means something that is able to be laughed at.

This meaning holds in modern English usage, we also have the word laughable, which means the same thing  Both laughable and risible bring with them an implication of dismissiveness, by which I mean that it is generally understood that if someone describes, for instance, an argument you are making as laughable, they don’t literally mean that they found it funny or actually laughed when hearing it.  Rather, rather they mean that it was of such poor quality that it was deserving of ridicule.  The concept of laughter is being used in this instance as an intensifier to communicate an insult and, in this respect, both words are the same.

However, there is something about risible that has always seemed more intense to me, something that makes its use more insulting than calling something merely laughable, and I belive it stems from the non-English origin of the word.  The meaning of most compound words based at least partially on a native English word (in this case, laugh) is usually understood easily because one understands the words on which it is based.

This is not always the case with borrowed words, a problem which is particularly acute in English due to the heavy French overlay that came with the Norman conquest.  Even if one knows the definition of a word, there are times when loan words happen to correspond with words in the receiving language and the meanings become unintentionally intertwined.

I feel that something like has happened in the case of risible in that it bears an unmistakable, though purely arbitrary resemblance to the word ‘rise’.  This is a subtle connection that is likely to be made only subconsciously, along the following lines:  while something that is laughable might provoke scorn and derisive laughter, something that is risible is so outrageous that it provokes a reaction, specifically one in which the offended party rises to challenge the speaker.


Somber is another word I became interested in through Spanish.  To clarify, it is not that I had never encountered the word before, but rather that I had never stopped to think about it until I came across its Spanish variant, sombrío.

To go back to its roots, somber derives from a compound Latin term made up of two elements, sub-, meaning ‘under’ and -umbra, meaning ‘shadow’.  So, the original meaning has to do with something that is under 0r something which casts a shadow.

In Spanish, both the literal and figurative meanings persist in the word and its variants.  For instance, sombra means shadow and a sombrero is literally something that casts a shadow over the face of the wearer, while sombrío conveys the same emotional sense as its English counterpart but has additional power because the connection with shadow is more readily understood.  The explicit nature of this dual meaning allows the poetic possibilities of the word to be used to full effect.  In English we have to resort to different words altogether when talking about a literal shadow and a somber mood, thereby breaking the implicit connection between the terms and weakening their poetic force wrought by visual and auditory correspondence.

It seems to me that what English vocabulary has gained in variety due to its now thousand-year old shotgun marriage with French has come at a significant cost in terms of its aesthetics and poetic possibilities.  The average English speaker does not understand the connection between shadow and somber the way a Spanish speaker would understand the implicit connection between sombra and sombrío.  I can’t help but feel that instances such as this represent a misalignment that weakens English as a language.  I see it as a tear in the fabric of the language that has been patched over by time but remains, nevertheless, a blemish.

Finally, we should be remembered that language is a living thing and nothing prevents us from rebuilding it and driving it in a direction that is pleasing to us, and all the better if this is done in accordance with history, tradition and the grammatical rules of the language.  For instance, the purely English replacement for somber would seem to be ‘enshadowed’ or perhaps ‘enshaded’.  Personally, I prefer the first of these.

Some might laugh, but to my ears describing the mood in a room as ‘enshadowed’ or even loading figurative meaning onto the word ‘shadowy’  so that it is not just a physical description has a nice ring to it and is the kind of creative and exploratory endeavor that should be encouraged.


Jovial is an odd word in the modern context.  Its meaning is clear and straightforward: happy, jolly, good-natured, etc.  But the reason why this is so is both surprising and interesting.

The root of the word is jove, which is actually Jove, an alternative name for the Roman god Jupiter, who was seen by the Romans as equivalent to the Greek Zeus.  So, to be jovial then, is to be like Jupiter.  But which Jupiter, the god or the planet?

If one examines the mythology surrounding Jupiter, one does not get the sense that he was viewed as an overly ‘jolly’ deity.  In fact, as the sky-dwelling, thunderbolt wielding king of the Roman pantheon, he seems more likely to inspire terror than laughter.

If we then look to the planet for the source of the association of Jupiter with merriment, we have better luck.  Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, has traditionally been identified in astrological symbolism with prosperity, good fortune and the preservation of vitality.  It seems to be this association, rather than the one with the god, that has lent the word its meaning.

The word first cropped up in English in the late 16th century, just as the era of Renaissance magic was giving way to the era of early modern science.  I like to think of it as a faint echo from a prior era, a reminder that, to our ancestors, all things have an essence or particular nature, and that just as one thing is connected to another thing, the natures of those things are also connected, all forming a part of the fabric of the ordered cosmos.