Thursday, January 24, 2008

Silly stuff

As regular readers of the SE blog know by now, the Word Nerd strikes now and again, usually when least expected, to share his love of language and shed a little light on the shadowy reaches and rarified climes of the English language. I love to explore etymologies (word origins) and the history of words as they travel through the years and change meaning. Example: Silly today means “light hearted, foolish, and not very concerned about practical matters.” Interestingly, in the early Middle Ages it meant “pious.” It comes from an Old English word gesaelig. Silly’s modern German cousin, selig, can still carry the meaning “blessed.”

No surprise, here: I love rhetorical arcana—hidden knowledge that can enrich anyone’s vocabulary, build cross-word-puzzle skills, and prevent fancy-pants highbrows from pulling the wool over the native intelligence of common folk with specialized terms meant for the anointed few. Here’s an example. I recently heard someone use the somewhat intimidating word “isomorphic.” Not quite sure what he meant, I leapt right on the word nerd trail to unpack this mouthful. Iso, it turns out is Greek (many prefixes and suffixes are), and it means, simply, “alike” or “equal.” Since morph means “form” or “shape” (also Greek), isomorphic means “having the same shape.” Simple. So what didn’t this person just say that? Well, he did in his own way: He is a college professor. That’s how they communicate. Now, no longer in the dark about this $25 term, we can, too.


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