A word to the wise ...



I recently read that Bonham’s was having a sale of old letters. The one above caught my attention: ‘That which you seek is within you; do not search for it elsewhere.’ So said, Immanuel Kant, a leading German philosopher living 1724 – 1804. This rare autographed quote is expecting to fetch $22 – 36,000. Gulp, what???


How could this person’s words have such a high value attached to them? I understood the gist behind the words, something to do with finding your inner ______ (Fill the blank with peace/strength/creativity or whatever notion you choose!) The auction house asserted that Kant’s influence today still extends to ‘every aspect of western though and culture’. I beg to disagree. Kant’s philosophy today, is anachronistic, Kant’s thinking, especially with regards racial hierarchy and white supremacy, offensive - total bunkum in fact! And this piece of advice only appealing because it is open to interpretation. But … as a source of historical evidence and a reflection of historical context and perspective, it does have some value.

All of this got me to thinking about words and the context in which they are used, and how they can be open to misinterpretation if they are misconstrued. As someone interested in history and stories, I do a lot of external seeking. Knowledge is not inherent, it cannot be found ‘within’; knowledge is gained through hard graft, the skill of writing honed with practice, Mr Kant. But there I go, taking him out of his historical context …

And, as is often the case, away I went down a rabbit hole researching ‘words’.

The word history itself has evolved from a Greek word historia meaning ‘to seek knowledge’. As someone who loves both history and stories, I find it particularly satisfying to know that the words story and history have overlapped and been interwoven for millennia.

If you are anything like me, it’s not only stories and histories I find interesting. Words in and of themselves have enormous appeal and fascination, and I like to investigate words to find out their underlying, historical roots.

Etymology refers to the origins and history of a word. It is derived from the Greek word etymon meaning the ‘true sense of the word’. However, isn’t it also true that the ‘sense’ or ‘meaning’ of a word changes over time? Words and language are organic! So alive!

I want to share some more of the words I’m intrigued by. Take intrigue for example. Today you might use it to simply mean fascinating or interesting, but back in 1610 ‘to intrigue’ was to ‘trick, deceive or cheat’. By the 1640s intrigue had evolved and was used to talk about an ‘intricate plot’ or ‘plotting’. And by the 1660s it had morphed again, assuming a sexual connotation often meaning ‘an illicit sexual encounter’.

And oh dear, how many words have secondary meanings, or sexual innuendo, that can wreak social havoc? Knowing the multiple meanings of words, or their traditional usage is something I often talk to my students about. When we fail to spot or understand the deeper meanings of words, it can scupper our critical thinking and undermine our full understanding of a text. The best authors use this knowledge to their full advantage.

I’m no word expert, but I think about words a great deal and find myself talking about them often. You might call a word nerd. Did you know the word nerd was coined by Dr Seuss? William Shakespeare was not the only author to shape our language. Jonathan Swift – ‘yahoo’; Lewis Carroll – ‘chortle’; Tolkein – ‘tween’. I think I have the word ‘futtered’ in my novel manuscript. Just putting that down here in case … for posterity. Hmm!

As well as the generic ‘sense’ of a word and its accepted contemporary lexical meaning, I cannot help but feel we all also apply our value to a word or words depending upon our personal association and experience with that word. Each of us will have words we cringe to say and also our favourites. One of my favourites is slogan, largely because of its history. Did you know that slogan derives from the Scots slogorne meaning ‘battle cry’. Back in my PR days, I liked to keep that in mind. I also fall in love with words simply because I like the sound of them. I’d love to reinstate slubber, used by Shakespeare to describe work performed in a slipshod fashion. Oooh, and slipshod is another interesting word, originally deriving from shoes being worn down at the heel, or slippers. Uggshod being the contemporary Australian equivalent … Okay, I made that up. There nothing wrong with going out in a comfortable pair of Uggboots - though I confess, I have been laughed at and my kids wouldn’t be seen dead in them - they much prefer to wear ‘slides’ with socks, pulled up of course. Oh, how fashions change, and of course, words are no different.

How else are new words created? Some words are clipped from their full form: flu was originally ‘influenza’; indieclipped from ‘independent’, journo from ‘journalist’. Emigrating to Australia was a big eye opener for me, having to come to terms with the national love of abbreviations. New words are also formed by joining two words together (afternoon, windmill, cupboard) to make compound words, and by blending words (brunch, chillax, procrastibaking). We also make words from people’s names (Bloomers, Cardigan, Sandwich or bloomers, cardigan and sandwich).

Words are also adopted for political reasons. I was never more aware of this than when I was serving with the military in Bosnia and the language during the civil conflict over there, the differences between Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian became increasingly polarised, not to mention politicised. Vocabulary became intrinsically interwoven with national identity. Newspapers published new sets of words, often resurrected from ancient history, in order to stamp national identity and conformity on states. Words can be wielded as explicit political, rascist and/or gendered weapons.

There are words which set my teeth on edge for no apparent reason – for example gotten - and others which have me trawling for their origins – such as miscreant (originally deriving from Old French with a meaning close to ‘unbeliever’ . It was used to label pagans and infidels). And yet why? What is it that makes us love one word and hate another? Why do we get attached to some and find them bizarrely satisfying to use … please say this isn’t just me!

Words and language are malleable, and reasonably forgiveable, but when we make obvious mistakes it can prove embarrassing at best or excruciating at worst (and I’m sure we’ve all been there and done that!). An example that often snags my attention is the inappropriate use of historic and historical. Historic means ‘significant or important in history’ such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, whereas historical means relating to history or the past – historical sources, historical evidence etc. So, how much importance we assign to a historical event should depend upon its historic significance.

Often it is impossible to say or know how words become part of our lexicon, but understanding some of the context, history and origin of words, getting to their roots and the intention of the author, enriches both our appreciation, understanding and knowledge. Each of us will assign words a slightly nuanced personal meaning and value depending on the context in which we find them and our own experience. Words come and go, some fabulous words falling out of popularity, other new words entering our lexicon. One small innocent word can cause the crash of the stock market, or set someone’s heart on fire.

A quote from an eighteenth century philosopher might provide an interesting historical sidenote but it will not be burning a historic hole in my pocket.

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