Stories That Created Words – Defining History

Posted on March 4, 2011 in Specials


By Shekhar Sharan Mishra:

Words form an integral part of everything we do. Yet a large majority of us dread words. We seldom make a dedicated effort to know words and the stories behind them. It’s sad that when we grow up, we take words for granted. We fail to realize words are exciting little things fairly wriggling with life, trying to say something but we turn a deaf ear to it. Words are mysterious yet overt — it’s all on how we perceive it. And yet each one has a romantic history behind it of birth, of life and even of death. So, let us trace a few of these word histories. Some of these are incredible yet they are still true.

  1. Boycott — Well this is an interesting one. There was an English land agent named Charles C. Boycott whose challenging duty was to collect high rent from Irish farmers. In protest, the farmers ostracized him from the village preventing him from trading, purchasing or even hiring labourers from the village to harvest his crops. Literally speaking, the Irish farmers boycotted Boycott.
  2. Jovial — The Romans’ chief god was Jove, or Jupiter. He was a cheerful, sociable and a father figure although his anger could destroy offenders in a flash. However, the latter part of the character is eliminated when we use the word jovial in the modern context.
  3. Tawdry — This word is named after a pious girl whose Saxon name was Aethelthryth. As the wife of King of Northumberland, she found a famous monastery at Ely and later became its abbess. This holy woman, however loved necklaces and would often borrow them and try them. Unfortunately, she was stricken with a throat disease and she blamed it on her one worldly vanity. After her death, she became renowned as St. Audrey. Later still, her birthday came to be celebrated as a fair where vanity scarves called “St. Audrey’s laces” were sold. With time, these laces came to be known as “tawdry laces”.
  4. Nestor — A character from the Iliad, Nestor was the eldest of Greek leaders at Troy. He was noticed for his wisdom and loquacity, both of which increased as he aged. These days a nestor need not go on at such length; he may share his knowledge or give advice with a few words.
  5. Maudlin – The painters generally pictured Mary Magdalene, who was freed of the seven devils by Jesus, with eyes swollen and red from weeping for her sins. With age, Magdalene transformed to Madelaine to the present day maudlin.
  6. Derrick — Derrick, a seventeenth century English hangman, hoisted many notorious criminals to their death.
  7. Sadist– Back in the eighteenth century, a Frenchman called Marquis de Sade found pleasure in torturing his friends and mistresses. The word ‘sadist’ is derived from his name.
  8. Crestfallen– When a rooster loses in a cock-fight, his ‘crest’ really ‘falls’. Thus the word ‘crestfallen’.
  9. Bayonet– The first dagger like weapon that fitted over the muzzle end of a rifle was manufactured in Bayonne, France. This weapon was called bayonet.
  10. Cicerone– Cicerones take their name from Roman statesman and orator Cicero who was renowned for his wit, eloquence and elegant style.
  11. Sybaritic — Well this one is a word we all commonly use. It was derived from the ancient city of Sybaris, founded by the Greeks in Italy, famous for its wealth and hedonistic self-indulgence of its citizens.
  12. Laconic — The disciplined Spartans were known for using no more words than they had to. They lived in a region called Laconia. Hence, this terse way of speaking came to be known as laconic after them and their territory.

We are rarely conscious of the history that each word has to tell us. Reading would be a lot more fun if we follow a right approach. The above examples are just like a few drops in the vast ocean of words which lies just before us. So, from now on there is no need to dread words. Vocabulary is the most powerful tool a man can possess. And anyways, it’s never too late to start!!