Using etymology in English language learning

by Alastair Kane

English, as everyone knows, is a hotchpotch of various languages, with healthy doses of Latin and Greek, a smattering of Norse and Danish, and a considerable chunk of Norman French. Not to mention innumerable 'borrowings' from many others; for instance, 'robot' is from Czech, 'juggernaut' from Hindi. This wealth and diversity can be dazzling for the English language learner when dealing with spelling, apparent irregularities in grammar and especially building a vocabulary resource.

One way to help accumulate and retain lexical information is to make it memorable. The meaning of the word is not necessary found in its definition. And sometimes the same word, 'bank' for example, can be different parts of speech. Is it the same word, or a different word? The answer lies in how we use it; placing a word or phrase in context gives it sense. 'He went to the bank and took out some money.'; 'She sat on the river bank.' However, the more outlandish the context, the easier it is to remember the individual word: 'She sat on the river bank next to a giraffe with a stiff neck.'

The Evolution Of Words

A word's definition and use in context are points of reference. Together, they make it easier to remember. Another point of reference to consider is a word or phrase's etymology, its origins. Words had to start somewhere after all, and sometimes their first use can be quite dramatic, or illustrative of their future meaning. A personal favourite is the word 'decimated', generally used to mean 'kill, destroy or reduce a large percentage of', as in the sentence 'The athlete's chances were decimated by injury.' Yet the root is the Latin 'decimation', which was a form of military disciple used by the Roman Army to punish soldiers; every tenth legionnaire would be flogged or executed. 'Decem' is ten. From this root we also get decimal and December. These connections are memorable.

Or take for example some of the words used in this article. 'Hotchpotch' was a kind of stew, made with goose, herbs, spices, wine and other ingredients. The word was first used in the early 15th century. Before that, it was an Anglo-French legal term from the 13th century meaning a 'collection of property in a common pot before dividing it equally.' It got there via the Old French 'hochepot', a type of soup or stew. Or the word 'doses' from the Greek dosis meaning 'a portion prescribed', and used by Galen to describe portions of medicine.

Etymology reminds us of the living, organic nature of language. But it's also a way of remembering words and phrases. It's helpful to know that it was the flamboyant pianist Liberace who coined the phrase 'laughing all the way to the bank.' If you include etymology in your learning programme, you'll be laughing all the way to the vocabulary bank.

About the writer

Alastair is a freelance writer who writes for Communicaid, a communication skills consultancy in the UK offering business English courses.

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