Sometimes, while I am writing a column, I get a completely different idea of what I will write about.
This happened just now. I am looking at the word, “column.” Why is it spelled with an “mn” at the end? I consider myself an amateur etymologist, very amateur. Now take that word, “amateur.” Where did it come from? I am guessing column is from the Greek, and I would guess amateur is from the French. Now, hold on, I’m going to go check.
Well, was I off base. Column is from Middle English, in other words older than the language we speak now. Amateur is from Latin for lover, “amator.” I am assuming you do something as an amateur for the love of it, rather than being paid for it.
And, for kicks, while I was at it, I looked up the origin of “etymology.” After accidentally typing in the word, “entomology,” the study of insects, I got to “etymology.” That is from the old French word, “etimologie.”
This love of language started way back for me. During that time, adolescence, when sleeping seems to not be high on a person’s list of things to do, at least during the night, I would try to induce sleep by reading the dictionary. The problem was, I got fascinated by the definitions and the origins of the words. So much for sleep.
I started reading things like math books. Now, that was boring. The trouble was, there wasn’t a lot of text.
I suppose this love of words came from my family. Everyone read voraciously. My parents, mostly my father, read us all kinds of books before we could read anything on our own of any length.
One or our favorite authors was James Whitcomb Riley. When we moved to Greenfield, we were thrilled to learn he was from here, and our children would get to know more about him than we had.
As we got older, we read newspapers, magazines, books, the backs of cereal boxes and whatever else had words on it. My older brother’s stepchildren, when their mother first met him, used the stack of books in his car to know they had found the right one in a parking lot.
I love to tell others about words. I studied to become a teacher in college. While social studies was to be my main focus, I minored in English. In the 1980s, unless a person had what we now call a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subject as a teaching subject, it was hard to get hired to teach. Thus began my career in what would become social work.
For a time, I satisfied my love of words by reading aloud the writing of others. I volunteered with CIRRI, Central Indiana Radio Reading Incorporated, a group that read local newspapers over a radio channel to those who had sight or reading problems. It is now called IRIS, Indiana Reading and Information Services.
More recently, I worked with people who did not have English as their first language through the Greenfield Learning Center. In my short time doing that, before a change in administration saw that program go away, I tutored two women from South Korea. They did not have the sound for “R” or “L” in their native language. They also had a language that was not influenced by many other languages.
Think about all the words that sound the same but have very different meanings. These words tend to come from different languages and cultures. Take the word, “there.” We have “their” and “they’re.” The same sound but very different definitions. Or “wear,” “ware” and “where.” Or the word, “bear,” which has two completely different meanings.
As we would encounter these words, especially the younger woman would sometimes look at me as if I, and my language, were completely nuts. I did try to explain that English has words that come from many different languages and sometimes from older English versions. This often did not help her frustration. We agreed to accept that English is a very difficult language to learn.
Jim Matthews would further bore you to tears with his love of words, but common courtesy says to stop.