3 Reasons to Study Etymology

Words are a writer’s tools, and English-language writers have one of the biggest toolboxes in the world. Unfortunately, a big toolbox isn’t useful if you don’t know what all the tools are for.

Maybe you’ve seen people buy huge kits of power tools and then end up just using the hammer—or, worse, treating everything like a hammer, using the butt of a delicate screwdriver to bash in a nail.

That’s how most of us use English: we mostly stick to the simple, powerful words we know how to use, and when we reach beyond those, we grab whatever word comes to mind and bang away with it without much care for its special purpose.

But how can you blame us? Most of us learned English without a manual to explain exactly what each word is for.

That’s where this new Ivy Global series, The Etymologist, comes in. In these posts, we’ll look at groups of related words and talk about the subtle differences between them. To understand those differences, we’re going to look at the history, or etymology, of each word.

English has so many words because it’s borrowed them from so many other languages. At first, those borrowed words meant pretty much what they did in their original languages. Over time, their meanings changed, but their original meanings never completely disappeared.  

Today, even when two words seem like they mean the same thing, they never do: because of their different histories, the words mean what they mean for different reasons. Those reasons determine what exactly the words mean.

Knowing their exact meanings will allow you to use words more precisely—not just as hammers, but as precision screwdrivers, each perfectly suited to its task. You’ll build your vocabulary in a way you can feel confident about: instead of throwing a fancy-sounding word into an essay and hoping it means the right thing (tip: teachers can always tell when you do this), you’ll be able to use the right word and know it’s the right word.

Studying etymology will also make the Verbal sections on standardized tests more approachable. First, you’ll have an easier time reading the older passages, which often use words in ways that only make sense if you know the words’ etymologies. Second, you’ll breeze through the vocabulary questions, which specifically test your ability to tell the difference between words with similar meanings.

Finally—and my favourite reason—studying etymology will change your whole relationship to the language you speak. Words will feel transparent, because you’ll see the building blocks inside them, and they’ll feel connected, because you’ll see how they’re all made of those same building blocks coming together in different patterns.

I hope that, after a few posts, you’ll agree with me that etymology is pretty awesome!

Hm. Is “awesome” really the right word there? Or should I say “fantastic”? What about “amazing”, or “incredible”? If only I knew the etymologies of those words…

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