Extend ideas with etymology
One of the most creative twists of phrase I’ve ever seen came straight from some good dictionary research. The story: “The Big No,” Steven Wright’s Esquire piece about the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.
Here’s the kicker:
“In Buddhist thought, to be alive is to be immersed in flame — the burning of the senses, the burning of the mind, the burning of desire. There is only one treatment for this painful condition we find ourselves in, this suffering life, and that is to extinguish the fire, to blow it out. From the Sanskrit ‘nir,’ or ‘out,’ plus ‘vati,’ or ‘it blows’: nirvana.”
Exploring etymology — looking into the meanings behind and origins of your key words — can give your copy depth and context.
Andrew Graham-Dixon used etymology to add additional layers of meaning and context to these three passages from Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. His research brings new understanding to the word humility:
“In Caravaggio’s time wealthy members of certain religious confraternities emulated such venerable examples — clothing, feeding and washing the feet of poor pilgrims coming to Rome. To do so was quite literally to embrace humility, to lower the proud self to the ground in emulation of Christ. The Latin root of humilitas is the word humus, meaning ‘ground.’ The word ‘humble’ is part of the same linguistic family. To honour the foot is to honour the lowest part of the human body, and implicitly to humble the self in the sight of God.”
And to vulgar:
“Long after he had sold his own paintings, Borromeo continued to sponsor and support particular forms of popular Christian visual spectacle — events and phenomena that were literally ‘vulgar,’ in the sense of being aimed directly at thevulgus, the crowd, the general mass of people.”
And to capital punishment:
“The most serious penalty was reserved for Caravaggio. As well as being sentenced to indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence.’ This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so. The phrase meant exactly what was indicated by the etymology of its second word, derived from the Latin caput. To claim the reward, it would not be necessary to produce the painter’s body. His severed head would suffice.”
Conduct etymological research
Etymology comes from the Greek word etymon, meaning “a sense,” and logos, meaning “word.” To perform an etymological study:
1. Research etymological dictionaries. Here are some to try:
Or just Google “etymology of [your key word].”
2. Look up the root words of your topic. Explore the history and evolution of your key words.
3. Work with those words. Use what you’ve learned to develop more sophisticated copy.
As long as you promise to avoid the overused “Webster’s defines quality as yadda, yadda, yadda … ,” you can find some terrific material through etymological research.