A Look at Word History: You May Be Surprised at How Many Foreign Words You Know

  |  December 12, 2018

A brief look at word history may surprise you with your own knowledge.

Where did this word come from? It’s a question you’re likely familiar with. Word history can be fascinating. Especially when encountering some of our language’s more unique words.

Like the word “berserk.” We know the word means out of control or crazy. But where did the word originate? How did it come to be used in English? And what does it have to do with a bear?

Etymology is the study of word history, or word origins. To study the etymology of a word, you consider several factors that contribute to the word’s meaning, origin, and usage.

A casual examination of word history will reveal that we likely all know more words in foreign languages than we realized. All because of how familiar words originated.

The Study of Word History

Language is a singularly human invention. It is arguably the most complex communication instrument that humans possess, and it allows for sophistication in our thoughts, actions, and interactions.

Scholars affirm that our human society was indeed formed through the evolution of language.

Every language is comprised of words and groups of words. Word history seeks to record where those words came from, how they were used, how they were passed to other cultures, and how they are used in modern times.

A study of word origins requires an understanding of the parts of words—namely, their pronunciation and grammar usage. That entails some understanding of phonology and morphology. Because words are often shared as parts, one must understand the origin of each part and how it contributes to the whole.

A study of word history also examines a language’s change over time. What factors influence this change, and how is it adopted by the prevailing culture?

This includes awareness of key concepts like cognates and borrowings, reconstruction of languages, and discussions about the difference between languages, dialects, and idiolects.

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Some Word History Samples

Here are several examples of a word history from different languages. Notice that knowing the basic word can help you know several other words as well. This is all a part of etymology.

Phone

We all know a phone is a device that’s used to communicate with people from a distance. You may even be using a smartphone to read this article. In modern usage, we have shortened the original word telephone to just phone.

The English word comes from the Greek words for sound (phon) and far away (tele). Some related words using (phon) have to do with sound as well, such as symphony, microphone, telephonic, phonograph, and saxophone. How many other words that contain the segment (phon) do you know? What do they have to do with sound?

Hyper

We all know someone that illustrates the meaning of this word, very energetic and lively. Here again, modern users have shortened this word from hyperactive, which combines the Greek word meaning “over, beyond” (hyper) and the Latin word for something that’s done (act).

How many related words do you know the meaning of, simply because you know the definition of hyper? We often use exaggeration in speech to get our point across, or simply to make speaking more memorable. An example of that is, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!” In English, we call this hyperbole—stretching the truth, like throwing (bole) something too far (hyper).

Other related words are hyperventilate, hypertext, hyperlink, hyperglycemic, hypertensive, hypersensitive, hyperinflated, and hypercritical.

Dense

We also know someone who comes to mind with this word, although that is a derogatory slang usage. The proper meaning is packed tightly or very thick. Everyone is familiar with a dense fog, so thick that driving or sailing through it becomes hazardous. Our English word dense comes from the Latin word for “thick” (densus).

Related words use the base (dens) to convey the same meaning in different contexts. Examples are condensation, density, densepack, densification, burdens, and gardens.

Finish

We should have included this word at the end, because that is where you will do what this word means. The English word finish comes from the Latin word finiswhich means “end.” In many words, this is shortened to fin.

Related words include defined, finite, infinite, fingerprint, confinement, refinement, financing, viewfinders, fingernails, and pathfinder. How do all these words relate to end?

Peace

Peace is a common desire of people all over the globe—a calm state of being with no wars or troubles. The Latin pax and Old French pais both mean peace, and English words use both as prefixes and suffixes. Look for words with pac or peas in them.

Related words with similar meanings include pacify, appease, pacifist, or pact.

Liberty

Americans value this word and its meaning highly, perhaps above all others. We are privileged to enjoy as our birthright the state of being free. Oddly enough, the Statue of Liberty in New York is a symbol of freedom that came to us from the same place as our word liberty.

With word origins in Latin, the English word liberty found its way to us through the Old French liberete, usually shortened to lib. How many ways can you spot the root meaning in these words? Liberator, liberal, equilibrium, calibration, unliberated, filibuster, deliberate, and libation.

Berserk

No, we didn’t forget the earlier example. This word was introduced into English as far back as the early nineteenth century to describe the fighting style of the early Norse warriors. The word is Dutch and Norwegian, originally berserkr, a noun, made from combining the word for bear, bjorn, and the word for coat, serkr.

The word berserker was coined to specifically denote Norse warriors because of their uncontained ferocity in battle.

Word History and Translations

When it comes to the science and industry of translating material from one language to another, word history is an important factor. Professional linguists must be acquainted with etymology and word origins for numerous words and word sets in order to make accurate translations.

That’s why it is imperative that when planning a document translation project for your company or organization, you choose a translation services provider that employs only native-speaking linguists as translators. Only a person raised and acclimated in a particular language and culture can express your meaning using culturally appropriate terms.

When you’re ready to begin a document translation project for your company, give ILS a call. Our native-language translators are just one of many important factors that guarantee your satisfaction.