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Word Histories and Mysteries

This paperback compendium of articles on the origins of words has been compiled by the editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries.

The cover of Word Histories and Mysteries

Among the oddities revealed by its writers are that average derives from an Old French word meaning “damage to shipping”, that caprice comes by a devious route from an old Italian word for a hedgehog, that in medieval times deer was the name for any creature, that in Middle English dinner could mean breakfast, that fawn and fetus are etymologically connected, that garage is from a French word whose first sense in that language was a place where one moors one’s boat, that junk originally meant old rope ... and so on. Its writers have not shied away from discussing features of some of the most common words, such as a, it and they.

You will also be painlessly introduced to some of the terminology and ideas of etymology, such as back-formation (a word mistakenly formed from another by removing what looks like an ending), folk etymology (popular legends about word origins), metanalysis (a shift in the division between words, as a napron became an apron, metathesis (in which sounds are transposed inside a word, as wops turned into wasp), and melioration (in which over time a word becomes more elevated or positive in meaning). Though not all these terms are explained in the text, there is a glossary at the end of the book.

[Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus, published by Houghton Mifflin on 13 October 2004; paperback, pp348; ISBN 0618454500; publisher’s price $12.95.]

Page created 6 Nov. 2004

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