About TWD

I spent the next few months poring over stacks of my parents’ back columns and studying books on word origins and the evolution of English, and in the process I made two important discoveries: first, that I was absolutely fascinated by the subject itself, and, second, that I knew much more about the English language than I had thought I did. The combination of my own grounding in English, my somewhat dusty but sound grasp of Latin, and more than thirty years of incidental linguistic knowledge gleaned from my parents via dinner table osmosis, combined to allay my initial terror at the thought of writing about etymology. My father and I worked out a collaborative arrangement that allowed me to write one or two columns per week, which he would then review and tune up, if necessary, before tossing them into the mix with his own columns. To my surprise, my father did very little fiddling with my writing, and Words, Wit and Wisdom soon began appearing in newspapers around the world under the byline of William and Evan Morris.

Almost as soon as I began writing the column with my father, I discovered that I was far from being alone in my fascination with the stories behind words. Mentioning the column in casual conversation with nearly anyone, from my dentist to the proprietor of the corner newsstand, would be certain to elicit either a favorite word-origin story to share or a question about an obscure term that had been simmering unanswered in the back of their minds for years.

Early on in my apprenticeship, I came across a series of word origin books by the poet and lexicographer John Ciardi (A Browser’s Dictionary, A Second Browser’s Dictionary, and Good Words to You, now all, sadly, out of print). The more words I traced back through time for our readers, the more I appreciated Ciardi’s observation that each word, no matter how humble, was “a miniature fossilized poem written by the human race.” The evolution of words, in many ways, is an organic process akin to the evolution of animal and plant species. Words grow and prosper for a time, often spawning new little words, but eventually age, and even become extinct in many cases. Now that English is in many senses a global language, words travel from country to country, and mutate in both their forms and meanings, often changing their connotations entirely, or combining in idiomatic uses that would have struck listeners just a century earlier as nonsensical. I would not, for instance, wish to be the one to try to explain “rock and roll” or “pushing the envelope” to Noah Webster.

Words don’t do all this on their own, of course. The words and language we speak today are the product (more of a work in progress, actually) of an enormous committee consisting of nearly every person who ever lived, most of whom never spoke our modern English, and it shows. If our words, metaphors and idioms sometimes make no sense to a logical mind, or if it seems as though there ought to be a happy “gruntled” to accompany the cranky “disgruntled,” we have only ourselves to blame. (There actually used to be a “gruntled,” but it meant “grunting like a pig” or “cranky,” and it faded away as “disgruntled,” which simply added the intensifier “dis” and meant exactly the same thing, became popular.)

The good news about our unruly, intensely democratic way of making and using words is that the lack of any central planning and administration authority, the absence of a Ministry of Proper English, makes our language one of the most energetic, flexible, and just plain fun tongues on Earth. This vitality and unpredictability of English as it is actually spoken drives the prissy Language Cops of the world absolutely bananas, of course, but it warms the cockles of any true word lover’s heart.

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