Thursday, September 8, 2011

Dungeonspiration: Etymology


When I was younger, I used to grab a dictionary off the shelf, sit down on the floor, flip to a page, and just start reading for hours. One of the things I particularly liked about a good old fashioned dictionary was that little piece before the formal definition of a word - the etymology bit.  I was always fascinated about how the meanings, uses, and forms of words shifted over time.  Those little blurbs were always too small - just offering a hint of what that particular word had been up to over the centuries.

Twenty years ago I stumbled onto a book by Robert Claiborne called The Roots of English. It's basically an etymological dictionary, but as Claiborne states, "It's in no sense a comprehensive dictionary of Indo-European roots but rather on of Indo-European roots in English.  And only some of those . . . about a third.  In partial compensation, I've added a modest selection of non-Indo-European words or roots that have contributed to our everyday vocabulary."

The Roots of English is fascinating to read.  Most entries have interesting little stories about these 'proto-words,' and Claiborne makes interesting links from one word to another. I learned about the word "arkhein," from this book:

[Greek ARKHEIN, to begin, > take the lead, which > rule (rulers - sometimes - take the lead, though not always in the right direction).  The "begin" sense > ANCIENT ("from the beginning"), ARCHAEOLOGY (the study of ancient things), and the ARCHIVES where ancient documents are stored, frequently enshrining ARCHAIC laws.  The "rule" sense produced the MONARCHY ruled by one person and the ARCHITECT who is the "ruler" of construction - a master builder.]

Of course, arkhein also reminded me of a combination of arcane and Arkham as well, so it has been a favorite word of mine for two decades.

What I found particularly useful was that I could take the root words from the book and turn them into good words for role playing and story creation.   Fantasy words made with real English root words seem to strike a chord with the listener much better than a word formed out of gobbledygook.  There is even an index in the back of the book that links English to the root word, making word creation much easier.

The Roots of English is a great resource for DMs and word-o-philes and I highly recommend it.

Oh, and as a little side note, Robert Claiborne was a fascinating guy himself.  He was a folk singer who toured with Woody Guthrie, a victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee, an editor at Scientific American and various Time-Life science books, and wrote on subject such as medicine, astronomy, climate-anthropology, marine biology, and linguistics.  He was quite a fascinating guy.

So go grab a dictionary, a comfy patch of rug, a quiet afternoon, and a glass of Hi-C and go invent a new language or two. :)

- Ark

8 comments:

  1. I used to do that same thing. I've always had a love of word origins and languages in general. I think it's a good trait to have for a gamer--at least a GM.

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  2. "When I was younger, I used to grab a dictionary off the shelf, sit down on the floor, flip to a page, and just start reading for hours."

    I not only used to that, but I still do it haha.

    Favorite activity when reading Vance: copy down the words I don't recognize for dictionary browsing later.

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  3. I'll put my hand up as another who did that. As a young fella I always read with a dictionary next to me and often just read the dictionary itself. I loved the etymological insights.

    I would have to say that even now the dictionary is the book that gets taken off the shelf more than any other - just about daily in fact.

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  4. I love etymology to a degree that should not be admitted in public. Etymological fallacy be damned! Great stuff for inspiration. Skeats is public domain now, as I understand, and I've enjoyed this website: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php.

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  5. My favorite dictionary that I own is the American Heritage 3rd edition (I want the 4th, but that will come some time in the future). It includes a dictionary of Indo-European roots at the back which has proved invaluable to me on numerous occasions.

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  6. The American Heritage 4e is good, and at least at some points in time, the Indo-European roots section has been reprinted in a separate paperback volume. I bought the electronic edition and the software completely screwed up the etymology stuff, so I returned it and as far as I know it was never fixed. The OED is still my favorite, though.

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  7. Count me in as a dictionary kid. Now I'm going to have to look for this at Borders (70-90% off week!).

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  8. @Everyone - Yay! Words! Yay! I find myself reading online more these days - but I need to go get me a good word book to sit down and read away from the computer. Reading on the floor, however, isn't something I will probably go back too. I need a couch or something. :)

    - Ark

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