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Victoria Neufeldt

Shy Words

bowl of sugar

bowl of sugar

When I took on the commitment, a year ago, of contributing blog postings about language, I began bravely by tossing out a little ditty that came into my mind, inspired by Dr. Seuss: «New words, old words, shy words, bold words.» Well, I’ve talked about old words and new words, but shy words? What was I thinking? However, perhaps the notion can work — shy words can be those that we use without noticing them as words at all. They slip through our consciousness as we speak and listen, write and read, creating no ripples. The great bulk of our vocabulary can be called shy, because we don’t think about most of the words we use.

Our shy words are not normally those coined by journalists, and nobody writes about them, though the history of many may be interesting or unusual. They may have been consciously coined in English or borrowed from another language; they may result from grammatical or semantic error. Most of them are not new. The shyest ones will be the most common: play, work, peppermint, stagger, kind, forestry, sing, happy, reference. Mellifluous isn’t common, but it is «standard,» and beyond checking a dictionary for its meaning, a native speaker is unlikely to focus on it. When you see or hear monkey business, you might be curious about where the term came from. But even such somewhat odd terms are unlikely to generate a letter to the editor or a tweet, let alone a discussion or argument.

I love these unsung words. Take the word drift, which conjures up an image of something moving slowly, effortlessly, even indolently. But the word comes down to us from the Old English verb drifan, meaning to drive, which has clear inferences of purpose (driving sheep into a pen), even force. Drift itself has its own interest, for if you think of driving snow in a January blizzard, any notion of indolence vanishes!

A surprising number of our ordinary (shy) words have mysterious origins, which ought to lend them some cachet, at least temporarily. Blunt can be traced back to the 13th century (Middle English), but its history before that is unknown. The same is true of boy. How could we not know where the essential word boy comes from? The answer is surely the vagaries of record preservation.

Who ever thinks about the word sugar? Yet this little word has an interestingly convoluted history, reflecting centuries of trade and commerce. It can be traced back to the ancient language of India called Sanskrit. From India, the word travelled with the commodity it designated through the trade routes of Asia, North Africa, and Europe, being adopted into a succession of languages along the way: Persian, Arabic, Old Italian, Old Spanish, and Old French. By this route, it came into Middle English from Old French in the 14th century.

A sweet ending.

«New words, old words, shy words, bold words» is a four-part series about English words and their origins.

Previous post: Old Words


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