“Plethora” is one of my favorite words.
I know what you’re thinking. What kind of random awkward human being has favorite words?
When I was a teenager, I knew that I was falling in love fast. Sure, with my adorable high school boyfriend, but also with the sexy and seductive allure of words and language.
See where the “random awkward human being” thing starts coming into play here?
I used to carry around a notebook that I would pull out to jot down quick notes when I came across different words in my reading or daily life.
Words that were interesting to me. Words I had never heard before. Words I thought meant something else. Words I was curious about.
Then at night — and this is where it is going to start getting super word nerd geeky — I would sit down with my journal and my huge 1K+ page dictionary to research the etymology (word history) of these words and write them out carefully.
Needless to say, I entered “random awkward human being” status young.
Long ago and far away, humans did not have zillions of words to communicate. Nor were there hundreds of synonyms for a single concept.
When you used a word, it carried weight, because it was the only way to convey your thoughts on a subject.
This was brilliant for the ease of conversation, but hampering for the creative expression of writers and philosophers.
For example, let’s dig into the history of the word awesome.
The word first seemed to come into use in the late 1500’s to mean something was “profoundly reverential.” By the 1670’s it had diminished to mean something that “inspired awe.”
Thanks to the mostly West Coast youth of the mid-20th century, the word “awesome” developed an informal definition to mean something is extremely good (and sometimes not even all that extremely).
Setting up a word journal (or an “etymology log,” if you want to be an uppity pretentious teenager like I was) is actually an easy task.
First and foremost, get a journal or notebook to write all this down in. Spiral-bound, leather-hardcover, parchment scroll — whatever works best for you!
The most important part is knowing what you are looking at and for. As you come across words that you either don’t know, or would like to know more about, write them down for further research purposes.
Pretend you are Darwin discovering new species and origins.
With the advent of the internet, the 1000-page dictionary isn’t a necessity anymore. Though, if that’s what you prefer to use, then you lug that thing around and use it proudly.
If that’s not your speed, there are plenty of resources on the internet. Simply typing the word and “etymology” in Google or Bing will often deliver a full definition and history. Let’s take a wander through that word awesome from earlier:
Now is where the Sherlock Holmes-ing is going to come into play.
In your word journal, you are going to write out each of the following:
1. Parts of Speech: Is this a noun? A verb? An adjective? Pay attention to how the word is used in a sentence to determine how you should use it in the future. Don’t know what those mean exactly? Check out Dictionary.com’s nifty little Word FAQ on it.
2. Definition: What does the word mean? Does it have multiple meanings or applications? Are you using it correctly? Is everyone else? (See “awesome” discussion above.)
Note – Sometimes there will be an “informal” definition or use, depending on what site you are using
3. Synonyms & Antonyms: Synonyms are words that are similar to the word you are using. Antonyms are opposites. I like to call this the “rabbit hole,” as it can send you out researching more terms if you aren’t careful.
4. Origin*: This is my favorite part! It will become yours as well, because this is where you start turning into the professional private investigator you secretly dreamed of becoming. To be fair, this is the REAL rabbit hole.
1. The word awesome is actually a conjugation (smushing) of two origin words: “awe + some” (to be filled with awe)
2. “-some” is a suffix, meaning it is added to the end of a word to form a new or modified word, so we know the more important part of this word (the root) is in the beginning: awe.
3. So we look up the etymology of the word “awe” and find that it is actually from Old Norse and Old English words that mean “terror, dread.” Not quite the emotions you’d associate with the current colloquial idea of the word awesome.
4. Now, I know that Old Norse and Old English are not ancient languages, but were in fact used in the Middle Ages. That means there is likely a root word even older. I’ll usually jump on the Online Etymology Dictionary at this point, to REALLY suss it out.
5. I can see at a quick glance that not much research has been done on the Scandinavian language side.
6 But holy smokes, the Old English — there’s a long trail on this one! From Proto-Germanic *agiz- > Old English ege “fear” > Old High German agiso “fright, terror” > Gothic agis “fear, anguish” > Proto-Indo-European *agh-es– (a broad language used by most Indo-European people in 4500-250 BC) > Root word agh meaning “to be depressed, to be afraid”. The closest classical language root most modern linguists would recognize would be the Ancient Greek akhos, meaning “pain, grief.”
Now, words change. Obviously awesome has.
Back when it was first used, people in general did not try to understand gods and sciences and power. Instead, they stood in fear of such things. A fear so profound it would hurt them.
We’re a bit more educated as a mass of humanity now. We know that things we don’t understand are not necessarily things to be terrified of, but we should pay attention to them.
Something that is awesome, in a more modern (but true to the origin) definition, would be something that affects you so profoundly, it makes you actually feel a pain or emotion.
Think double rainbows. (I’m only half-joking… some of his reaction is likely “inspired” by something other than awe. 😉 )
As a writer, words are your weapons.
That’s right — there’s a war happening out there, my friends. It is a vicious battle between good writing and mediocre writing. One of the easiest ways to increase your fighting power is to use your vocabulary.
I’m lucky because I spent eight years intensely studying classical languages, and over two decades sleuthing out etymologies and word origins.
This starts with understanding the words you are using, and making sure each one matters.
As with any exercise or skill, the more you practice, the better you will get.
PS – You’ll note, this is a down-and-dirty study. You can probably do all this, with understanding, in about 5-7 minutes. Proper etymology is WAY more involved, but unless you are lecturing on the origins of language at Cambridge, you’ll likely be okay.
Elisa Doucette is a writer and editor who works with professional writers, entrepreneurs, and brands that want to make their own words even better. She is the Founder of Craft Your Content, and oversees Client Strategy and Writing Coaching. Her own writing has been featured in places like Forbes, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yahoo! Small Business, and The Huffington Post, among others. She also hosts the Writers' Rough Drafts podcast here on CYC. When she isn't writing, editing, or reading words, she can usually be found at a local pub quiz, deep in a sun salutation, or binging TV shows for concept ideas and laughs.