12 February 2011

Speculating on Words

I've come up with a name for one of my favorite little hobbies:
Speculative linguistics, (n., sometimes used with the modifier "moderately-informed"), characterized by taking stabs at explaining etymologies, grammatical, and other linguistic features before looking up the answer. Sometimes confused with knowing just enough to invent connections where they don't exist (about which there may be a separate entry).
I’ve been doing this for many years. I should note that I grew up surrounded by people who spoke different languages and enjoyed language issues. My dad, doing post-grad linguistics work, sort of used us kids as research subjects in children’s language acquisition. My course was set very early.*

The thing is, if you love and are curious about words, you’ll start to notice connections everywhere (a process that explodes once once you’ve got a foreign language under your belt). And what you learn becomes just more clues for finding future connections. I’ve reached a point where I see or hear or imagine connections all the time. It’s now second nature to make a game of trying to find plausible links between what I know and what I suspect. Once I’ve come up with a notional relationship, I can’t rest until I know if I’m correct or not. These days, I regularly finish each round of my nerdy game with a trip to “my OED”.

I hope to show some surprising connections — some obscure, but others are hiding in plain sight of anyone curious enough to look. For example, the next entry to this blog will be very brief, but it will be Thinking about Thanking.

* I should note also that I married another word-nerd. Before we got too busy raising kids, my wife and I would sometimes spend entire evenings tossing ideas back and forth and reading etymological dictionaries. (I don’t expect everyone to get a frisson of pleasure from the prospect of reading dictionaries — but the thing about etymologies is that one entry will lead you to many other ideas, questions, and searches of other entries. This was something like reading Wikipedia. Once you’re in, you can’t get out until the sun rises.)


  1. I knew I liked you guys for a reason! We're all nerds! Although clearly your nerdiness is much smarter than mine. I love etymologies and finding similarities between languages and stuff... I'm just way to lazy to look up stuff and find out if my guesses are right! ;)

  2. Kelly -- Another wordie! Yay. Keep reading this blog, then! :)

    My problem is that once I hit on a plausible connection, I can't get it out of my head until I know how close I am to (or far from) the truth. So I *have* to look it up!


  3. Reading dictionaries can be very entertaining...and useful. Wisconsin U.S. Senator Proxmire had a dictionary in every room in his house. He would take pages with him to social functions. To avoid being bored by all the chatter and speeches, he would sit at the guest of honor table reading his dictionary pages, while others thought he was going over his speech notes.

  4. Having babies who are just learning to speak is an amazing window into (possibly spurious) linguistic connections. There are a million different categories, but the most obvious is seeing (almost certainly false) common morphemes and phonemes in kids' utterances; i.e. purple, poo-poo, people, etc.

    Can't wait to read some of your (probably more likely) linguistic connections!

  5. Anonymous: That sounds like an excellent strategy for getting through meetings at work.

    Beta Dad: You're right about the wordie value of having little blabber boxes around you. I kept a lot of their humorous utterances and bring them out from time to time to embarrass the "kids". Regarding your purple poo-poo people, I wonder if that's not the origin of that great classic song we grew up with, only titled differently. It should be the "One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Purple Poo-Poo People".

    Thanks for the comments!