How Etymology Can Change Your Life, And Other Matters Lexiconical

For years, those same years during which I couldn’t decide which I loved more—acting, writing, painting or sculpting, I tortured myself with one word: dilettante. Even my profile in the high school yearbook mentioned that “there must be at least three Louises,” one who painted, one who wrote, one who acted. Was I pleased by that suggestion? No, it confirmed that I was a dabbler, someone who skimmed the surface, who was a little good at a lot of things, A Jacqueline of all trades, mistress of none. In short, a dilettante.

Then one day, on an impulse for which I will be forever grateful, I looked up the word with which I’d been flagellating (a word which comes from the Latin for whip, but which is a cognate or close family member of the Old Norse word for fluttering wings) myself. Guess what the dictionary told me, dear readers? The root of the word (from the Italian by way of Latin) is a verb which means to delight. WHOA! What a revelation. Somewhere along the intersection of history and language, English speakers had separated art and knowledge from delight; and a dilettante had come to mean a person who wasn’t serious enough, who took mere joy from what they did or studied. Double WHOA! What’s wrong with taking delight? In lots of things? In anything you can wrap your hands or mind or heart around?

That is how, O Best Beloveds, the dictionary set me free. To be whoever I pleased. Among my many subsequent identities has been Etymologist, one who revels in the changing shape and meaning of words. (This specialty’s name comes, ultimately, from the Greek word eteos, meaning true or actual.) I’ve loved learning, for example, that almost all Indo-European words for write find their roots in verb forms that meant to push, scratch, carve, or cut. Little wonder, considering what hard work writing used to be before paper and computers. How rich and right, too, that the origin of the word human is probably a mashup of the Latin homo (man) and humus (earth)—not to be confused with beings of a higher order, you see.


If you’d like to dabble (which word originally meant to splash rather than immerse in water—can you really get clean that way? Tsk. Tsk.) in word origins, try this site, which introduces itself, aptly and juicily, thus: “This a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English.”

So. What words have changed your life?


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10 responses to “How Etymology Can Change Your Life, And Other Matters Lexiconical

  1. Martine Leavitt

    Guess what, Lou – you’re a delight!

  2. I’m SO into etymology for all the reasons you give here. In fact, I’ve just achieved a lifetime’s goal of using the word floccinaucinihilipilification in my new novel — in a real sentence. It’s a word I’ve introduced to hundreds of school kids who love learning it and always remember it, once they know what it means. After all, what’s a language for?

    • louisehawes

      Oh, that is a delicious word, Tim! And unlike antidisestablishmentarianism, we can really use it! Until you shared it, I didn’t know that it’s got a terrific pedigree/etymology: it was made up by students!!!

  3. Carol Esteban

    I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with Tom, a fellow American ESL professor at Monterrey Tec and Pedro, a Mexican professor in our Humanities Department. Tom asked Pedro, who aside from speaking Spanish was fluent also in English and French, what classes he taught, and Pedro answered, “Art History, World History and Latin American Literature.” Tom said, “Wow, you’re really a Jack (akin to your Jaqueline) of all trades!” Pedro appeared nonplussed. I jumped in and said, “No, more like a Renaissance man,” and Pedro said he liked THAT term much better.

    My point is that while I’m happy that etymology made you feel good about being a dilettante, I feel that a word’s connotation is probably more important than its origin. For me, a dilettante is, as you say, a dabbler, but even worse, a superficial dabbler. I consider you to be, dare I say it?, a Renaissance woman or better yet artistically gifted, or maybe a multi-faceted artist. Don’t you like those terms better?

    On a different note, what is going on with using the word “gift” as a verb. Why do so many people say “I was gifted with a beautiful whatever?” Is that acceptable now in the U.S? Maybe I’ve lived out of the country for too long. In fact, I know I have…xx

    • louisehawes

      Thanks, Carol, for the vote of confidence– I’ll take it! I love being called a Renaissance Woman; hear me roar!

      And so far as the way the language grows, it can often seem harum-scarum — a juicy word itself! But there’s usually method behind the mess. Here in the south, for example, many people use “y’all” when talking to a group. Others, nationwide, use “you’s” or “youse.” It’s all a way of compensating for the fact that English is one of the few languages that doesn’t have a second person plural (as your adoptive Spanish, and the rest of the romance languages, do). So even though I cringe when I hear these makeshift adjustments, I realize they’re filling a gap, making sense. This doesn’t seem very different from folks making a verb where there isn’t one. I kind of like the cheekiness, the practicality of it 🙂

  4. Hi Carol; Your concern about nouns being turned into verbs is one that a lot of us talk about. Especially when we’re, let’s say, workshopping a story. (Insert smiley face here.) But the thing is, Shakespeare did verbal conversions all the time: “Grace me no grace…” for instance. He made verbs of “refuge” “twaine” and “privilege” (see The Oxford Companion to the English Language, p.928). English is a living language and sometimes the living ain’t easy…

    • louisehawes

      Yes, Tim! We’ve been meddling with our language forever, sometimes just for the fun of it: Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey!

  5. And the Dictionary shall set you free. Thanks for that, Lou.Rather than a dilettante how about a Renaissance woman?

    • louisehawes

      Between you, Mark, and my friend Carol above, I think my path is clear: I hereby gratefully retire my dilettante’s beret and accept, instead, the many hats of a Renaissance Woman!! Thanks 🙂

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