Today I got through part of my book project: writing one-line summaries of the etymologies of 1500 common words.

Next project, I think, is to deepen this work by looking at other languages. The aim is to help conlangers by collecting ideas on how to form words.  So, the more languages the better.  (I think.  I don’t want to make the thing a juicy but unreadable reference.)

Also it’s fun to highlight the fascination of etymology, a field full of surprises. For instance, I love words like these with a near-baffling succession of meaning changes:

fast: OE ‘firm, fixed’ > ‘determinedly’ > ‘quickly’

fog: ‘grassy, mossy’ > ‘fleshy’ > ‘murky’ > ‘misty’

nice: Lt ‘not knowing’ > ‘foolish’ > ‘fine’ > ‘kind’

pretty: OE ‘tricky’ > ‘clever’ > ‘admirable’ > ‘pleasing’

At the same time, there are many many words that have virtually the same meaning today as they had a thousand years ago.  Not so surprising with two or brother or eye, but more so with dare, creep, hat, mean, rough, slide, stare, wild, yell.

Then there’s words that only date back to Middle English, when I’d have expected something older: ago, bad, boy, cut, grab, rabbit, smell, talk, whip, wrap.

And there’s words that I would have thought were homonyms, but turn out to be the same etymon: e.g. trip ‘stumble / travel’; lot ‘chance token / a bunch’; mess ‘serving / disorder’; might ‘power / possible’, fair ‘pretty / just’.  Or words where the original sense isn’t what I would have expected: dull was ‘obtuse’ not ‘blunt’, leave was ‘let remain’ not ‘go’, worship was ‘value’ not ‘praise’.

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