Sunday, April 6, 2008

The History of Words

I love language. Proof is I took two linguistics and one psycholinguistics courses in my undergraduate years. Additionally, as I've mentioned before I am a budding social constructionist (though I doubt I will ever be a pure social constructionist) and social constructionists will argue that our reality is socially constructed through our language. The words we use to describe our worlds actually shape our realities and our experiences. Our words come first, then our reality.

For instance, when we label people a certain way our experiences and interactions with, opinions, thoughts and feelings about, those people will be determined by that label. For instance, if we label someone 'depressed' not only will our own interactions with that person be coloured by that term, their experiences with the world will be too. Or look at the term 'single woman' versus 'spinster.' They have very different connotations. They mean the same thing technically, but in reality are very different words. If we see someone as spinster, we feel bad for her, expect her to have many cats, and be lonely and sad. If we say single woman, although some similar thoughts may come to mind (and to those of you who have those thoughts I have some rude things to say to you) but for the most part things don't look so bleak for her.

Anyhow, I digress. So words. Have you ever wondered where words come from? I often do. For instance, did you know that the word 'vagina' comes from a Latin word which meant 'sheath' or something which covers a sword. Hmm...I wonder what sword they were referring to. Apparently the first to use the term was an Italian anatomist. So the female gentalia only exists in reference to the male member. The role of the female gentalia is only to house the 'sword.' I say lets stop using the sexist term 'vagina' and use something else. Don't know what else we could use.

And then there's the saying 'rule of thumb.' This was based on an old English law which stated that a man could not beat his wife with something that was thicker than his thumb. Ah well jeez...thank you so much. I say let's stop using this phrase too.

And then there is the word 'ottaman' for the foot stool. I'm not completely sure where this word came from but I am sure it has something to do with insulting and degrading one of the greatest Muslim empires in history. Again, thanks racists. Again, let's boycott this word. I never use it anyhow. I always call them foot stools no matter how beautiful it may be. Hmpf! However, according to Online Etymology Dictionary it was called so because it looked Eastern. I don't know about that.

I'm sure you've all used the rhyme "Einee meinee myni mo (I'm not sure of spellings) as children. In the version I rhymed off we would say 'catch a tigger by the toe.' But of course in the original version the word tigger was not there but rather it was the 'n' word. When I first realized this I was completely shocked. My friend who informed me of this also told me that at one point as a child, she was using this rhyme when a teacher came up to her, ordered her to stop using it and forbade her from using it again. At the time she did not know why. I know I won't be allowing my future children to use this rhyme.

Then there are the words with benign origins. Or so it seems at the moment. Many words in the English language originate in the sub-continent as a result of colonial occupation. For instance the words 'thug,' 'bungalow,' 'cushy,' 'loot,' and 'cummerband.' And did you know that although the word 'tamarind' comes from the Arabic word 'tamar hindi', the Arabic word means 'date of India.'

However, I have to admit that the words and terms which are controversial and have shady origins fascinate me more. I will continue the search for such terms. If you know of any please to pass them my way.
* Click on the picture to see where I got it from.


Anonymous said...

Interesting history, especially about the word "vagina."
NOW what am I supposed to call her? I need an empowering term that doesn't sound goofy! What is Latin for "empowering but not cheesy"? Hahahaha.

Broken Mystic said...

wow thanks for sharing this. Most of this stuff I didn't know before. I can't believe the "catch a tiger by the toe" rhyme was originally a racial slur! Or the "rule of thumb" being related to wife beating. This just shows how unaware we are of words and their meanings. People don't know the meaning of what they say anymore.

It's like the word "Berber", which refers to an ethnic group living in Morocco. They're not Arab -- they are their own group and they have their own language. But the term "Berber" is very insulting. Medieval Europeans used this word because it stems from "Barbarian." What "Berbers" really call themselves is "Amazigh," but many people do not know that. We should stop calling them "Berbers" because of how insulting it is.

The word "Saracen" was used by Medieval Christian knights during the Crusades to describe the Muslims. "Saracen" means "those empty of Sarah." The Muslims were not from Abraham's wife, Sarah. They descend from Hagar (peace upon them all).

I don't know about the "Ottaman" word, but I've always been curious about that. I'm sure it has something to do with the Ottoman Empire.