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Vive la Différence!

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

I am fascinated by both etymology and philology. To see how words and their meanings change through time and use, and how those changes affect linguistic relationships is a rabbit hole I will happily fall into whenever I get a free moment.

Simply put, etymology is the history of a word while philology is the study of language as used in literature. Why would anyone care about where a word comes from or how it is used in literature? I have an anecdote and a scholarly example to share with you.

When I was a teenager, we used the word "awesome" all the time. It was my generation's version of "Groovy." My grandmother, a child of the Great Depression, was perplexed by my description of something good or beautiful as "awesome." New chicks in the coop? Awesome. Tiny bean sprouts poking up their heads in the garden? Awesome.

She would always ask, "How is this awesome?" Admittedly, I was perplexed by her question. Until I looked the word up in the dictionary. Ye Olde Merriam-Webster cleared things up right quick. "Awesome - eliciting feelings of fear and wonder." She couldn't understand how chicks or bean sprouts could elicit feelings of fear. Wonder, sure. Fear? Nope. My grandmother didn't understand the new informal meaning of awesome as something good. To her, the Great Depression and WWII were awesome. Those events evoked feelings of fear (for herself and the world) and wonder (that the world she knew could be so horrible). Certainly not, awesome good. The etymology of the word as well as its place in the linguistic pantheon had shifted from her generation to mine.

Now, consider the word "weird." According to Etymology Online Dictionary, the first known use of weird is circa 1400 and its original definition was "having power to control fate." Shakespeare even named Macbeth's three witches, "the weird sisters" in Act 1, Scene 3. The sisters, the witches, manipulate Macbeth's fate through their influence. They represent the unseen, uncontrollable forces which direct Macbeth's path and influence his choices. In modern times, weird is casually tossed about to mean something unusual or odd. Dipping back into Merriam-Webster, while the old definition is buried deep in the entry, the first definition reads, "Of strange or unusual character."

Just imagine the confusion a time traveler from the past might experience in simply trying to follow a conversation between friends. Do you think she would feel "weirdly awesome" or "awesomely weird"? There's an argument to be made that this is just semantics but, is it?

At any rate, when weaving your linguistic tapestry, I encourage you to ruminate on the deeper shades wrapped in the threads of your words. Take an old word and bend it new. Shunt a new word back in time. Play with the weft and warp of the stories you create and show us the difference between extraordinary and ordinary.

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