University Writing Center Blog

Posted on November 7th, 2014 in Language, Writing Strategies by Jennifer Mahoney

by Elizabeth Watness, Student Consultant, University Writing Center

Do you ever wonder where words come from? (Besides the dictionary, of course.) Many words commonly found in conversations today have old and interesting origins. Some of them have modern meanings that are quite different from their original definitions. Words change meaning over the centuries due to translation (or mis-translation) across languages, adaptations by different cultures, and even by simple mis-spellings.

Etymology, or the study of the origin of words and their meaning, can be a rather complicated subject, since a single word in English can sometimes be influenced by multiple languages over time, but I’ll try to keep this straightforward. Take for example the word “university”. As far back as the 1300s, the word université in Anglo-French referred to “an institution of higher learning” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Go back a bit further, and you’ll find the Late Latin universitas, which means “corporation” or “society”.

Have you ever notice that “university and “universe” sound and look very similar to each other? That’s no coincidence. Universitas itself is built off the Latin word universum, meaning “all things; all people; the whole world,” (Online Etymology Dictionary) which is pretty darn close to the modern definition of “universe: the totality of known or supposed objects and phenomena throughout space; the cosmos” ( Keeping things simple, uni- means “one”, and –verse refers roughly to a Latin verb meaning “to turn”. So our word “universe” today came from the concept “all together, all in one” or literally, “turned into one” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Does this connection have anything to do with how an education at a university can open up a whole new universe of knowledge and experience? Or the fact that higher education is the center of some people’s universe? Quite possibly…

Examining the origins of words might not seem like a vital life skill, but it can be a handy tool to use when writing papers. Lets say we need to write an essay analyzing the effectiveness of two particular advertisements. (This should be familiar to a few of us…) Before learning about etymology, we might just start by defining the word “advertise”. The standard dictionary definition is ” to announce… (a product, service, etc.) in some public medium of communication in order to induce people to buy or use it” ( Yawn~ Most people know what an advertisement is already, even if they can’t pull the exact dictionary definition off the top of their head. It’s not really surprising, or intriguing, or attention-grabbing.

However, we can use etymology to make this a bit more interesting. With a little bit of digging through the Online Etymology Dictionary, we can see that “advertise” comes from Middle French, and one of its meanings was “to warn.”  Many people may not know this fact, so now we have a better foundation to build our introductory paragraph on: the fact that many advertisements today are designed to entice people to buy a product, not warn them away from it. Now we have identified that there is a contradiction between our current, common understanding of a word, and its original meaning.

Clever writers that we are, we can use that as a spring-board onto our own ideas. Does the product advertised have some “dark secret” that people need to be warned about? (Like human-rights violations of people who work in factories to assemble electronics, for example.) Or conversely, maybe the advertisement does warn people about a problem, like an advertisement for organic fruit that warns about the health and environmental dangers of pesticides. In this case, we can point out that the advertisement is staying true to its original meaning of warning people about issues.

Hopefully now you have a better understanding and appreciation for where words come from. Studying words may not be the height of excitement for some people, but words themselves are important, and have as much power as we are willing to give them. The more we know about the words we use, where they came from, the more accurately and truthfully we can communicate.