Words, Palabras, Geiriau, Слова, Mots, Зборови, Kelimeler, Orð*

Obscene Greek pottery

Greek warrior celebrating the Battle of Marathon

For nigh on six years I have been meticulously crafting this amazing blog—every week!—most of the time almost doing what I said I would do, focusing on writing and literature, as well as language and rhetoric. The very concept of this blog depends on the fact that long, long ago human beings who probably had more hair than us began making up words.

Words are mysterious to me, as they’re only sounds made mostly with the mouth, and by social accord we agree that certain sounds will mean certain things, like “shivviness” means…actually, I don’t know what that means. The system is a lot less perfect than we sometimes think, and we argue a good bit over what words are “supposed” to mean.

I like knowing where words come from, how they change, and how we use them. Here’s an interesting example. The word “marathon” comes from the name of a Greek town, and a marathon as a long-distance run was named for a historical incident associated with that town. At Marathon, about 2,500 years ago, the Greeks fought a battle against a huge number of Persians and unexpectedly won.

The Greek winners thought people in the city of Athens would assume they had lost, and that when the Persian navy sailed around to Athens, the Athenians would surrender. In that age of pre-internet, pre-radio, pre-telegraph (pre-almost everything, really), how could the soldiers in Marathon tell the Athenians they had won? One guy took off running, and ran twenty-six miles to Athens, which is why the modern marathon race is around twenty-six miles long. According to the story, the guy who ran—I mean, I hate this—but the story is, after he announced the victory, he dropped dead.

A long run requires great endurance, and sometime in the 20th century, someone took the word “marathon” and arbitrarily cut it in half, using “-athon” to mean endurance, which had nothing to do with the original meaning as the name of a town. Thus was created the word “telethon” for a TV show asking people to call in on the telephone and pledge money for charity. The endurance idea came from the fact that the show lasted for hours, but no one dropped dead (so far as I know).

Much later the ending “–athon” changed meaning again, because of the TV show, and came to mean “collecting for charity”, and I’ve seen things like a “can-a-thon” collecting canned food. It’s crazy, what happens with words, and cool as hell.

In addition to words being interesting just for themselves, it’s tremendously fun as a writer to put them together to do things. Sometimes using words might involve a rather plain language to convey ideas, or at other times the words might be used more for their own sake to create striking phrases. In that case we can get into things like metaphors, where a word or combination of words represent something very different—and yet similar in some way.

Metaphors are incredibly common, a basic aspect of how our brains work, but most metaphors have become so common we don’t recognize them anymore (rivers and bottles do not have actual “mouths” nor do clocks have actual “faces” or “hands”). The most interesting metaphors are new ones. Last week on a day of unpleasant cold wind, I said to someone at work that it was as if the air was full of tiny wild dogs, and she liked that description.

Even though not everyone feels the fascination for language that I do, humans inherently like playing with language, and almost everyone does it. Puns are common, and even if you moan about how unclever a pun is, it’s nevertheless a form of language play. Even very young children play with words as soon as they’re able, because this is such a common human activity.

Let’s end with a word play joke: A drunk walks into a bar with jumper cables around his neck. The bartender says, “You can stay but don’t try to start anything.”

And don’t you try to start anything, either. Next week will be the last entry in the Write or Take a Nap? blog before I go on a break, a hiatus, that is, a respite, a recess, to rise blinking from the dusty desk and go out into the sunlight. Maybe I can find a pub that’s open.

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* The title says “words” in these languages: English, Spanish, Welsh, Russian, French, Macedonian, Turkish, Icelandic.

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