Doing something a little different today. Someone requested a post about some word origins, and I’m going to try to mix a little bit of fun etymology with some overall background history of writing in general. Should be a fun post.
There are certain words that make me smirk a bit when I hear them, because I wonder about where they came from and how they got into our language. Like cockroach for instance. What these little red bugs have to do with roosters is anyone’s guess. I’m going to try tagging down a couple of these with some minimal references toward the end of the post, but first, let’s talk about words in general.
According to the wiki article on the topic, “Language is a system that consists of the development, acquisition, maintenance and use of complex systems of communication, particularly the human ability to do so.”
This is a very nice summation. It doesn’t really nail down the bases though. I expect that pointing was probably the first form of communication. Believe it or not, chimps and apes don’t perform these behaviors unless they are learned from a human, as per this article on the matter. Pointing, gesturing, nudging, tugging; these are things that human beings do, which aren’t generally found in the rest of the animal kingdom. Clever animals will follow each other’s gaze, and look in the same direction. They will make arbitrary body motions to signify things like anger, confusion, fear, and happiness, but actually communicating with each other through these gestures is rare, even in primates.
This is an important thing to take note of for us writers. Body language doesn’t have to be some crude hand gestures, rolling of eyes, raising of eyebrows, or other cultural movements. There are parts in my writing, with certain characters, where their head will cock to the side, or they will stare off in a given direction. These are primal gestures that require no language at all. They’re subtle and meaningful, and while I could up the gesturing in my own books a bit, it’s important to remember that sometimes, the simplest movements can be the most telling.
Bees are an exception to these rules about gestures. Studies have shown that a bee dance is actually an effective means of conveying complex descriptions of the world. The dance tells the other honey gatherers where to find the latest batch of blooming flowers, or a new water source that was discovered. If you’ve been following for a while, you probably already know that I’m nuts about bees, and this is one of the reasons. They are the exception to almost all of these rules that other animals adhere to.
Why pointing, tugging and pulling are my guess for the origin of language. Look no further than the nearest bitch, and watch how she interacts with her puppies. A nurturing concern for our young is probably at the heart of the matter. The young will develop their own communication to express when their needs aren’t met, and corrective actions of the parents keep them save from certain hazards. Dogs are known to snap at their puppies as a method of corrective action. The most primal way to tell someone they are displeasing you is to bop them on the head, or in this case, nip them on the scruff or the ear. It may be shunned by some in our current PC culture, but these crude actions could well have been the origin of all our language. Just some food for thought.
Writing can’t exist without language, and at it’s most basic form, language is a personal interaction to demonstrate a thought that otherwise cannot be conveyed by telepathy. Thus the origin of gestures itself could be a signal of sentience. The origin of language depends first on having a thought or emotion that you choose to share with another member of your group. The modern equivalent might be the “lights off/be quiet” rule in many grade schools.
If you like this discussion and want me to continue along the path from primal origins to modern grammar, let me know in a comment, and I’ll try to dig out some more insightful gems next week for further pondering.
Some Funny or Interesting Words:
Wanky – Since this was specifically called out in the suggestion comment, let’s take a look. The origin of the root word: wank, verb, to masturbate. The origin is unknown, as far as I can turn up. With the addition of the -y, or in fact other endings, we get a plethora of slang terms specific to the twentieth century. A wanker can be a generic insult, and is probably closest to the root. Someone is a wanker (masturbater) because they don’t have the skill/charm/whatever to attract a mate. Other definitions run the gambit from foolish to pretentious, according to wiktionary. The usage of the word is so diverse and varied in English speaking countries that it’s hard to pin down an exact definition, but the M-W is going to try:
Definition of wanky
Wanky is even more general, and stemming from the insulting emotional nature of wanker rather than the root wank, and takes on a more playful usage, like many words ending with the letter y. Y in English is often added to common words as a diminutive to soften a noun and make it more endearing, or lighter when speaking to a child. In Spanish, the same is often encountered by suffixing certain terms with -ito or -ita. I wasn’t able to pin down the exact origin, as it varies from source to source.
The first know usage of this word traces its roots to 1963 Germany, according to Merriam Webster. everyone knows what these are, so I won’t bother describing the little pests.
The word migrated from an early spanish form of cucaracha, to the early English cacaroha. Caca, Cock, WHY? The best I can find is that English speakers borrowed the term directly from Spanish (thus the caca-roach was a seventeenth century misspelling more than anything else, and is otherwise unrelated). The Spanish Cuca is actually a term that’s reserved for caterpillars, and which they applied to this little red-black winged insect which was believed to be of Indian origin.
Sorry to disappoint, but the “cock” in cockroach is simply a lingual interpretation and adaptation of a Spanish word, rather than a clever origin story. I was hoping to find something about hen-house infestation, but apparently that has nothing to do with the term itself. Some suspect that cacaroach in certain cases may have actually be purposeful, to specifically demean the filthy insects which left an offensive odor anywhere they carved out a home. That’s a folk etymology, however, so take it as you will.
Overall, I don’t think I’m going to be doing too many more etymologies. I had a little fun looking this stuff up and probing, but I don’t enjoy writing about it. Etymologies are something that’s fun when I’m killing time, but not to write about. If I do more posts about the origins of language and writing, however, some are certain to pop up from time to time. Like alphabet coming from aleph and bet, the first two letters of the ancient Egyptian phonetic language.