Friday, June 15, 2012

How Etymology Can Help Your Writing

By Jill Williamson

This from Dictionary.com:

et·y·mol·o·gy

  [et-uh-mol-uh-jee]  Show IPA
noun, plural et·y·mol·o·gies.
1.
the derivation of a word word origin, wordsource, derivation, origin.
2.
a chronological account of the birth and development of aparticular word or element of a word, often delineating itsspread from one language to another and its evolvingchanges in form and meaning.  word history,word lore, historical development.
3.
the study of historical linguistic change, especially asmanifested in individual words.
Origin: 
1350–1400; Middle English  < Latin etymologia  < Greek etymología, equivalent to etymológ os studying the true meanings andvalues of words ( étymo s true ( see etymon) + lógos  word,reason) + -ia -y3


I find etymology helpful in writing my historical fantasy stories. If you take a look at the bottom of the Dictionary.com post above, see the part where it says "Origin?" (I highlighted it in yellow.) All that information is part of etymology. And anytime you look up a word on Dictionary.com, you'll see the origin of the word at the bottom.

Why is this helpful, you ask?

Well, if you're wondering if a certain word was used during the time period of your story, you can find out. Simply look up the word.

More so than Dictionary.com, I prefer to use Etymology Online. Here you can type in any word and it will list the history and give similar words too. For example, I looked up the work "kitchen" and here is one answer:



kitchen (n.) Look up kitchen at Dictionary.com
c.1200, from O.E. cycene, from W.Gmc. *kokina (cf. M.Du. cökene, O.H.G. chuhhina, Ger. Küche, Dan. kjøkken), probably borrowed from V.L. *cocina (cf. Fr. cuisine, Sp. cocina), variant of L. coquina "kitchen," from fem. of coquinus "of cooks," from coquus "cook," from coquere "to cook" (see cook (n.)). The Old English word might be directly from Vulgar Latin. Kitchen cabinet "informal but powerful set of advisors" is Amer.Eng. slang, 1832, originally in reference to administration of President Andrew Jackson. Kitchen midden(1863) in archaeology translates Dan. kjøkken mødding. Surname Kitchener ("one in charge of a monastic kitchen") is from early 14c.


Another way you can help you word usage if you are writing a time period story is to read book from that time period. It can be fun or frustrating reading historical literature, but it's the best place to see dialogue from your time period. If you're writing medieval, try to read some of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. If you're writing regency, read some Jane Austen (This link leads to Persuasion online). If you're writing steampunk, read some Jules Verne (This link leads to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea online).

Movies are another option. They're sometimes easier, but then you are trusting that the filmmakers did their research, which can be risky.

How about it? If you write in an different era of time, what are some ways that you find accurate dialogue and word usage?

19 comments:

  1. For my medieval stories, I've just kind of developed my lingo. I dont use alot of the 'thees and thous' but I've read tons of medieval/fantasy books, and I actually talk alot like them in my normal conversations, so it's easy for me to write it. For my historical stories, I've read lots and LOTS of biogrophies, diaries, etc, that have all of that type of wording....I use that in my normal conversations too....drives my mom crazy ;)

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    1. Ooh, diaries are a great idea, Maddie! And that is SO funny that you use those words while talking to your mom. LOL

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  2. Cool! I'm thinking of trying out steampunk, so this was helpful ;)

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  3. I've been listening to old radio shows from the 1930s to figure out what words were used back then. It is really hard to figure out what words were spoken in a particular time period. This should help, though. Thanks for the post!

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    1. Great idea, Jill! Old radio shows are an excellent source. Hopefully they're entertaining stories too.

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  4. Discovering the etymologies of some words can be so much fun! Dictionary.com is one of the few online resources I regularly use; it's so nice to be able to pull it up quickly and find out whether a word or phrase was in use during a particular period. I've noticed that many of the phrases we commonly use today seem to have developed during the late 1800s - very disappointing when one is writing a book set in the early 1800s. Perhaps it has something to do with the Civil War.

    Out of curiosity, does anyone else ever have difficulty finding the etymology of specific idioms? They tend to be my bane...

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    1. In regards to idioms, I always try and Google them and usually find the answer--or what is thought the be the answer, anyway.

      Abigail, maybe you could find some diaries from the early 1800s, as MaddieJ suggested. Maybe you could ask at your public library?

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  5. Oh, cool! I love going back to the dictionary. This is going to sound incredibly corny, but it's kind of keeping with Father's Day coming up. My favorite game as a kid was this dictionary game my dad and I played right before he tucked me in. I'd hand him the dictionary, he'd open it randomly, and if I didn't know the word his finger fell on, then we'd laugh at the spelling and use it in a quirky sentence.

    Yep, that's my writerly childhood for ya.

    Also, the day after Father's Day my post on my friends' and my blog, Meditations of His Love, goes live and I use dictionary definition in that, too. I thought of that as I was reading this post. :)

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    1. What a fun game! You dad must like words. Is he a writer too?

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    2. Actually, no. He shares my love of books, though. :)

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  6. Does anyone have any tips for being stuck in the middle of the second chapter of my book? I have everything planned out for further chapters, but I just have been stuck with current ideas...

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    1. Maybe try brainstorming a list of random possibilities or things your characters could do next. Things that don't seem like them at all. Or do some "what if" brainstorming. If they're in a car, What if the tire blew out? Or if they're at school, What if there was a fire alarm, which got everyone outside and your MC was able to see an important character do something. If the scene is at work, What if the boss calls your MC into the office for some reason, maybe good, maybe bad.

      Maybe tell us what's happening in your chapter where you're stuck and I can brainstorm something that's helpful. LOL

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  7. Ooh, a new look! And the header... is that font CatholicGirlsBB? That was my favourite font in the entire world back in the day. (Yeah, back in the day when I could understand a little HTML and knew the names of fonts!:P)

    I like the blue. It has a calming effect on the eyes.

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    1. That's exactly what it is, Emii! How funny :)

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    2. Wow, Emii! You really know your fonts! LOL

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    3. I love the new look as well! ^_^ It's gorgeous.

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  8. I normally use a thesaurus to look up similar words to common words like "beautiful" or "stupid". Something to put pizazz in my WIP. :)

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  9. Culture impacts speech a lot too. For instance, in the Middle Ages, Catholicism was an integral part of the culture, and so oftentimes travelers would pray to the patron saint of journeys and such. People made oaths that were considered unbreakable. When writing dialogue I think you have to know a lot about the culture too.

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Disagreement is welcome. Rudeness is not. Please be considerate of each other!