The Importance of Etymology

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by Christian Hilgemann, sophomore writing coach

If I were to ask you the question “Do you know the meaning of the word ‘disaster’?” you would probably respond with something similar to “Why of course, Christian! Everyone knows that!” and although it does seem like the answer is fairly obvious, there may be more to this question than you think.

It might surprise you to know that we can reveal a much deeper meaning of “disaster” than the Webster’s Dictionary definition of “a sudden calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction.” This deeper meaning of the word is called its etymology. Etymology is essentially the history or origin of a word. This includes the original language, roots, and language transitions, as well as any other things that might have been part of the word’s development over time.

For example, “disaster” was originally the Italian “disastro.” Literally translated from its roots of dis- and -astro, this word meant means ill-starred. Of course, without any other knowledge at hand, this doesn’t really make any sense. However, with the knowledge that the people who created this early version of “disaster” blamed most catastrophic events, such as natural disasters, on the positioning and alignment of planets and other astronomical objects, we can begin to understand where this word came from, and thus know much more about the nature of the word itself.

At first glance, it may seem like this knowledge has no practical benefit beyond being mildly interesting, but as much as I would like it to be, my mission isn’t to fill your head with useless little bits of information. Being familiar with etymology has a number of useful applications to both reading and writing.

Knowing the etymology of words gives you a great advantage in figuring out their most effective use. Understanding the original meaning of a word as well as how it’s been used in both the past and present can increase your comprehension of its nuances and connotation. This knowledge will help you differentiate between words that have similar uses or are closely related to each other and allow you to choose the best one for each situation, leading to more masterful use of those words within your writing.

Additionally, there’s the benefit of being able to better grasp the interpretation of literature from across all of time. As etymology deals with the development of words from their very conception, it can assist in comprehension of language from any time period. So next time you pick up that first edition copy of “The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam” (circa 1100), remember to break out some of your new etymology skills along with it.

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