Welcome To The Wonderful World of Words


Let’s face it.  Words are awesome.  How words change over time is awesome.  And idiomatic expressions?  They are THE BEST.  If you could buy idiomatic expressions at the store, they’d be on my Christmas list.

Years ago, I was working at a non-profit agency and getting ready for a state audit. Everyone in the agency was having a nervous breakdown waiting for the auditors to swoop down for their annual visit.  I was in my office slogging through case files to make sure all the i’s were dotted and all the t’s crossed, when the psychologist came in to see me.  She was from an Eastern European country and her English was very good, but rather literal.

She saw that I was busy and asked me if I was okay.  I said “Oh yeah, I’m happy as a pig in shit.”  She responded, “Is that an idiomatic expression?”

Now that’s my kind of colleague.  I explained that literally it means that when a pig is rolling around in manure it’s very happy, so it is used to mean one is very happy. Except that I was using it sarcastically, because I was the total opposite of happy and just wanted the auditors to come and go.  She brightly said “Oh, I see” and happily walked down the hall practicing.  “Happy as a pig in shit. Happy as a pig in shit.”  I ran after her…..WAAAAIT….IT’S INAPPROPRIAAAATE…….

My favorite idiomatic expression in Spanish is “No entiendo ni papa.”  As an expression it roughly means “I don’t understand a word.”  Literally it means (rough translation by moi) “I don’t understand, not even a potato.”  I’m assuming they don’t mean the Pope (el Papa).  How cool is that?!  I love that expression.

the professor and the madman

One of my favorite books ever is The Professor and the Madman, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester.

Side note: Notice the Oxford comma?  I guess Simon Winchester had no choice but to use it here.

At any rate, this story reads like the best fiction novel but is the best nonfiction novel.  Personal intrigue, madness, murder and words. The title alone was worth the price of the book.

Which leads me to etymology. Wake up! wake up! I promise this isn’t boring!  Etymology is the origin of words and their history.  In other words (it’s hard to make a play on words, about the word “words”), etymology is how a word started out and how it ended up today.

Kind of like a word’s genealogy.

A couple of years ago, a kichwa professor friend from Ecuador referred to me as an Anglo-Saxon.  On the radio.  I was startled.  I expected Caucasian, white or even gringa. The details of the conversation are not germane to this article but it was a compliment. However,  I have never even one time in my life thought of myself as an Anglo-Saxon.

The first thing that came to mind were the words “hut” and “axe.”  I’m an axe wielding Anglo-Saxon who is off to her hut.  And then I thought, okay the Anglos are white people from England, and the Saxons are people in a jazz band.  Who were the Saxons?

I decided to find out through the word “axe.”  Man, has that word been around the block and the globe.  I couldn’t describe it well so here it is:

axe (n.) Look up axe at Dictionary.comOld English æces (Northumbrian acas) “axe, pickaxe, hatchet,” later æx, from Proto-Germanic *akusjo (source also of Old Saxon accus, Old Norse ex, Old Frisian axe, German Axt, Gothic aqizi), from PIE *agw(e)si- (source also of Greek axine, Latin ascia).

The spelling ax is better on every ground, of etymology, phonology, and analogy, than axe, which became prevalent during the 19th century; but it is now disused in Britain. [OED]

The spelling ax, though “better on every ground, of etymology, phonology, & analogy” (OED), is so strange to 20th-c. eyes that it suggests pedantry & is unlikely to be restored. [Fowler]

Meaning “musical instrument” is 1955, originally jazz slang for the saxophone; rock slang for “guitar” dates to 1967. The axe in figurative sense of cutting of anything (expenses, workers, etc.), especially as a cost-saving measure, is from 1922, probably from the notion of the headman’s literal axe (itself attested from mid-15c.). To have an axe to grind is from an 1815 essay by U.S. editor and politician Charles Miner (1780-1865) in which a man flatters a boy and gets him to do the chore of axe-grinding for him, then leaves without offering thanks or recompense. Misattributed to Benjamin Franklin in Weekley, OED print edition, and many other sources.” From the Online Etymology Dictionary

And there you have it.  My joke about jazz is not as clever as I thought.  And I spend so much time worrying/laughing about the “u” in colour that Americans threw out at some point for the much, much simpler word “color.”  Now I have to decide to write ax or axe.

I don’t know what Old Frisian is, but it sounds crazy awesome.

Welcome to the wonderful world of words.


About Barb Knowles

The things that are important to me are family, friends, teaching, writing, languages and using my sense of humor to navigate this crazy world. Please join me on this blogging adventure...
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27 Responses to Welcome To The Wonderful World of Words

  1. I love etymology as well. It is fascinating.

    I have heard so many family and friends rave about “The Professor and the Madman”–I really should read it one of these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love your words! So glad I found your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bea dM says:

    I never got through “The Professor and the Madman” but this was fun. I get to play around with words and expressions when training adults in Anglo-Saxon, and colloquial can be outrageously funny. Indeed, beware that you do clarify what they can and can’t use in a board meeting! Some of my favourites are shit hitting the fan, and working my butt off 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ann Coleman says:

    Words are wonderful! One of my biggest fears about technology is that the written word will become obsolete. And that would be a terrible, terrible loss.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. bluestempond says:

    I have lots of fun doing literacy tutoring with a Chinese friend. So many idiomatic phrases pop up that I never gave a second thought, and her questions make me stop to try to explain their meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb Knowles says:

      Haha that’s so true! I work with high school kids learning English. The hardest for me is when they come with song lyrics. Slang, expressions, urban references and ……….words a teacher can’t tell them!


  6. Val says:

    I was brought up in a home which was full of dictionaries and people who knew how to use them… so, yeah – words are good, words are fun, etymology more so. 🙂 But.. if you worry about the spare ‘u’ in color/colour then my current post may disturb you… (or not!)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Paul says:

    First off, I don’t understand a thing about your potatoes. There, did I use that expression properly? I think I’ll try it out lol. Of course you’re an anglo-saxon! You speak English. If you spoke french, you’d be an anglophone. That’s how we tell the difference in Canada. Do you ever watch the Scripps National Spelling Bee on TV and hear the kids asking the judges for the etymology of the word they have to spell?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m all about the Oxford comma 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hehehehhe! Oh. my,word. Words are awesome. I’ll go with axE and putting all the “u” in after the “o” as in colour…plus changin gthe “z” to s” like sympathise. Don’t kill me! :p

    Liked by 1 person

  10. awkwardaris says:

    simply put, words are beautiful

    Liked by 1 person

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