Etymology | Los Angeles Public Library
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Vi Ha, Young Adult Librarian, Teen'Scape,

Recent conversations with the teenagers that visit Teen’Scape revolved around the history of words. They asked seemingly silly yet serious questions about why words needed to be spelled correctly, why there are so many words that mean the same thing, and why we had to study vocabulary words for college entrance exams, such as the SAT.

I take these queries seriously and in librarian fashion, I will attempt in entertaining fashion to give you an answer to take away and share with your local teenager (unless you are the teenager reading this missive). Mind you, I am not an etymologist, just a casual researcher curious about the world.

The English language is a fluid language, liberal in its inclusion of other words from other cultures and slow-moving in the changes on how words are spelled. The word “good” used to be spelled “goode”, but sometime in the centuries, we dropped the last “e”. Similarly, the grammatically acceptable word “OK” is akin to our text-message-speak of “LOL” (laughing out loud), “BFF” (best friends forever) and to such Incoterms (agreed upon commercial terms used in international trade), as “CIF” (Cost, Insurance & Freight); all these acronyms are words that one has to be part of the culture to understand.

OK'd Cars

As a side note, how we use prepositions is also slowly changing. Are you “bored of”, “bored with” or “bored about” something? I am not a copy editor, so without further thought and study, I cannot answer which is the correct way.

Now, if we spelled words the way they sounded: “magician” could look like “majikshun” and we would lose the meaning of the word from the spelling--that the word comes from “magic” and “-ian” to denote that it is a person doing the act.

We have words like “cappuccino”  which is a hot coffee drink with steamed milk, but the word originally comes from the Italian from the Capuchin monks. We also have newer words like “bae”, which refers to someone’s loved one, as in Beyoncé is Jay-Z’s bae. In the same way that we have more than one word to refers to one’s significant other; there are more than one word for many other things. Generally speaking there are three words that mean the same thing in English with different subtexts. There is the Anglo-Saxon word which tends to be neutral, the French word from the Norman Conquest that tends to be more formal and the Greek/Latin word that tends to be technical. As an example, blessed (Anglo-Saxon), sacred (French) and consecration (Latin) all mean the same thing but have different connotations.

To demonstrate the previous point, a  friend recently shared with me the speech from Greek economist Xenophon (which is a fantastic name xeno=foreign, phon=voice) Zolotas from 1959.

I always wished to address this Assembly in Greek, but realized that it would have been indeed "Greek" to all present in this room. I found out, however, that I could make my address in Greek which would still be English to everybody. With your permission, Mr. Chairman, l shall do it now, using with the exception of articles and prepositions, only Greek words.
Kyrie, I eulogize the archons of the Panethnic Numismatic Thesaurus and the Ecumenical Trapeza for the orthodoxy of their axioms, methods and policies, although there is an episode of cacophony of the Trapeza with Hellas. With enthusiasm we dialogue and synagonize at the synods of our didymous organizations in which polymorphous economic ideas and dogmas are analyzed and synthesized. Our critical problems such as the numismatic plethora generate some agony and melancholy. This phenomenon is characteristic of our epoch. But, to my thesis, we have the dynamism to program therapeutic practices as a prophylaxis from chaos and catastrophe. In parallel, a Panethnic unhypocritical economic synergy and harmonization in a democratic climate is basic. I apologize for my eccentric monologue. I emphasize my euharistia to you, Kyrie to the eugenic and generous American Ethnos and to the organizers and protagonists of his Amphictyony and the gastronomic symposia.

I will need a dictionary at some point to decipher this speech, but his point is made.

Please do let me know if you can think of any other good answers to the above queries and I will attempt to to write an “It’s All Greek to Me” passage in the meantime.