In brief

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Word Routes

By Alexander Tulloch

Peter Owen Publishers pound;12.95

The word "school" is derived from the Greek skholxe. Its original meaning was leisure, later meaning a spare-time discussion. Rather more staid in origin is "teacher". It comes from the Anglo-Saxon taecan: to demonstrate.

A gymnasium is so-called because that is where people perform in the nude (as did Ancient Greek athletes) and a seminar is where a lecturer doesn't teach but, more subtly, sows seeds of learning (seminarium being the Latin for seedbed).

Much of this can be deduced from any decent etymological dictionary, but this beguiling paperback gives not only the root of a given word but the route by which it has travelled through the Indo-European family of languages, a family that includes almost every modern European language except Hungarian and Finnish. Basque, the language of northern Spain, appears to be related to no other language on the planet.

Although it is arranged like a dictionary, it is more idiosyncratic. A collection of mini-essays on selected words, it is in no way comprehensive.

Having whet our appetites with the route by which we obtained "dinner", it makes no mention of lunch. We learn, too, that "noon" is derived from the numeral nine, so really means 3pm, as the Romans numbered the hours of the day from 6am, but then there is no mention of the monastic afternoon service called None.

Nevertheless, Word Routes is full of delightful and inconsequential information to help any language teacher fill a moment. "Constipated" can trace its roots and route back to an Ancient Greek term for a tight formation of ships but constipado in Spanish means you are suffering from influenza. If you are hoist by your own petard, you may be exploded by your own bomb but perdomai is Greek for "to break wind", hence the French verb peter (to fart).

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