Cover To Cover is the anchor program for GPB’s literary coverage. Cover To Cover features a collection of distinctive Southern voices interviewing Georgia writers, Southern writers, and writers dealing with the South. The GPB Southern Lit Cadre will provide you with a varied, weekly glimpse at fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, and even the occasional ‘old school’ nod to Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do With Pigs

One of the things I find constantly intriguing in my work is the meaning and derivation of words. I am a true logophile, rejoicing in the unusual and obscure. I'm sure a large part of my attraction to writers and books is my love of words.

Growing up in Britain in the 1960s and 70s, I attended a private secondary school (grades 6-12) where I was obliged to study Latin. Although I have to admit the lingua latina was not the most exciting of the subjects I studied, it certainly proved to be one of the most useful.

I took Latin all the way to university entrance level, and even took a Medieval Latin class in graduate school. I never really appreciated how important it was to my education until I was a freshman at the University of Liverpool majoring in French. One of the first classes we all had to take was "History of the French Language" which began with classical Latin and traced the development of French up to the French Revolution.

It was during this year-long class that I first remember being grateful for all the Latin I had studied as we analyzed how the Latin word "pedem" became, many centuries later, "pied." There were so many of my fellow students who had never had a day's Latin in their life and who struggled through that class joylessly. I, and several others, on the other hand, understood from the get-go how it all fit together.

All this is to explain that I came by an appreciation of words and derivations, or "etymology," at a fairly young age.

I think the first time I can recall being struck by the use of particular words was when I was in 11th grade. I was studying English for university entrance and one of the assigned books we had to read was Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. This was the first Hardy book I had ever read and it struck me by its beauty, force, and language.

While not perhaps the most uplifting of authors, Hardy was a master when it came to his command and use of the English language. To this day, I remember a sentence from Chapter IV of Tess, when the Durbeyfield's horse, Prince, is killed by a speeding mail cart on a pre-dawn dirt road as Tess is driving to market. The horse is pierced through the breast by the pointed shaft of the mail cart and bleeds to death. Here's how Hardy describes the scene as Tess gazes upon the dead horse as the dawn breaks:

The huge pool of blood in front of her was already assuming the iridescence of coagulation; and when the sun rose a hundred prismatic hues were reflected from it.
I remember being blown away by one small phrase, "the iridescence of coagulation," in which Hardy seems to luxuriate in the breadth of the English language. There is so much expressed by his careful choice of nouns, one suggesting beauty, one denoting something much less poetic and more prosaic.

Since those carefree days of youth, I have continued my love of language, not merely as the means of writing great novels, but for the beauty of the words themselves; their sounds, their meanings, their origins.

When I was home during the university vacations in Britain I used to love to pour over The Times (of London) everyday, once my father had finished reading it. There was one daily feature that I particularly enjoyed; it was called WordWatch, and consisted of four highly unusual words with three possible meanings for each. The challenge was to choose the correct meaning.

The answers were always given a few pages later in the same edition, and so I liked to test myself. Of course, I was usually wrong. But from time to time I was right and I realized my classical education was not for nought!

All this talk of words and etymology is a way of leading up to this; recently a book came across my desk from Penguin that really caught my eye. It's title is Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do With Pigs (and other fascinating facts about the English language).

Written by Katherine Barber, who, since 1991, has been editor in chief of the dictionary department at Oxford University Press in Toronto, the book is an etymologist's dream. Divided into the four seasons, it looks at groups of words relevant to events in each. So, in summer for example, there's a section titled A Matter of Degree that examines words connected with graduation such as "degree," "diploma," "mortarboard" etc.

You're obviously thinking "but where do the pigs come in?" Good question. In spring, there's a section titled Down on the Farm, as so much happens livestockwise in the spring. Included here are six words that have something to do with pigs. These are: porcelain, screw, soil, porpoise, root, and swain. I'm not telling you anymore; if you want to know how these words have anything to do with pigs, you'll just have to buy the book!

Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do With Pigs (and other fascinating facts about the English language) now joins the other etymology books in the Flynn library (a real place!):
  • Joseph T. Shipley, ed., Dictionary of Word Origins. Philosophical Library, 1945; reprinted by Barnes & Noble, 1995.
  • William Morris and Mary Morris, eds., Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage. Harper & Row, 1975. (I acquired this book from the bargain bin of a used bookstore in Athens, GA, in 1993 for maybe $1. That was a dollar very well spent!)
  • William Safire, Language Maven Strikes Again. Doubleday, 1990. (Safire must be counted as one of my heroes!)
  • William Safire, Quoth the Maven. Random House, 1993.
Some folks read the phone book, I read the dictionary. Call me weird, but at least I'm not out every night spray-painting graffiti on walls across town. And, BTW, did you know that "graffiti" comes from the Latin noun graffio meaning "a scratch," which in turn came from the Greek verb graphein, "to scratch," and later "to write." Graph is an element in many English words connected with writing or recording such as "autograph."

Who ever said my education was a waste of time?

(Comments or questions? Email me at Look forward to hearing from you.)