A Little Perspective From Tom Church

Word Etymologies

Recently I’ve been very obsessed with where words originated from… no, not so much their geographic aspects, although those can sometimes be cool and all, but what they originally meant and what they mean now. I maintain a small mental cubby of several words I find unique and strange in etymology.

For instance, as I read about mythology (particularly Greek and Roman, I guess, but I’m trying to make time for Egyptian and Norse, too), I find that a lot of words pop up that I can immediately connect with modern English words. For instance, the word ‘tantalizing’ means to torment one’s emotions, or toy with them, basically. It’s a common word, everyone’s heard it… “damn, boy, your scent be pos’tiv’ly tantalizin’ today,” that kind of thing, I say that all the time. But it originates from a Greek fellow named Tantalus (sometimes spelled ‘Tantalos’) who was a complete and total douchebag. His background is rather morbid: the gods liked him so much that he was allowed to dine with them. And I guess he did dine with them, quite a bit, because he got bored and cooked his son Pelops in the stew and served it to everyone. They got super pissed, and they banished him to Hades, and his punishment was to stand in a pool of water for eternity, under a fruit-bearing tree. Whenever he stoops to drink, the water sinks into pores in the ground; whenever he reaches to grab fruit from the tree branches, the winds toss the branches far away from him. This toys with his emotiooooooons. It’s an awfully tantalizing punishment for Tantalus.

And so we have that word. And there are many more which I’ve learned. The word ‘Lord’ originates from Middle English ‘hlaford’ meaning “bread-giver”; similarly, the word ‘lady’ (originally written ‘hlafaeta’) means “bread-eater”.

‘Aphrodisiac,’ which means a substance that increases one’s sexual desire, stems from Aphrodite, who was sometimes construed as the Greek Goddess of Love; other times, it was her son Eros (Roman: Cupid), who gives us the word ‘erotic,’ which originally meant something much more innocent in nature than what we see today.

The word ‘luna,’ which we commonly associate with the moon, comes from the Roman divinity of the same name, who personified the moon. However, the word ‘lunatic’ also comes from the same origin, because crazy people were once thought to have their emotions and behavior regulated by the moon. On a related note, I read a book recently called The Professor and the Madman (it was really good, it’s by Simon Winchester), and from this book I learned the origin of the word ‘bedlam’: synonymous with mayhem or chaos, it comes from a famous lunatic asylum, fully named Our Lady of Bethlehem, allusive to Mary of the Bible. The hospital was and is located on the outskirts of London.

The origin of the word ‘panic’ comes from (you saw this coming) another Greek god. Pan, who presides as overseer and onlooker of all forest-related nonsense, is an ugly-ass dude who most people feared because he was so damn ugly. He chased nymphs around all the time and was kind of douchey. When people would walk into the words and hear noises that they could not really attribute to anything they were seeing, they would call them ‘panic’ noises. Woodpecking, branches snapping, and distant humming or ringing were all noises which made commoners, who knew no better, very uncomfortable. Therefore these ‘panic’ notions became today’s feeling of ‘panic,’ which we understand nowadays to be much worse than feeling merely ‘uncomfortable.’

Words are very interesting when you only look into them. Next time you need to look up a word, look up its etymology as well, and you’ll often be pleased that you did.

aestheism, not atheism.


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