On the recommendation of a friend, I have been reading Tudor Parfitt’s The Lost Ark of the Covenant. There aren’t any perfectly round boulders that chase our intrepid narrator out of caves (at least not yet), but there is plenty of intrigue and exotic locals and shifty characters who may or may not be what they seem. And snakes — Mr. Parfitt, like Indiana Jones, encounters snakes with a notable lack of enthusiasm.
Fairly early in the book, Mr. Parfitt and a colleague mull over clues that might be found in word roots, clues that might lead Mr. Parfitt to a clearer understanding of just exactly for what it is he is looking. Later, Mr. Parfitt muses on what might be discovered through a study of etymology:
…I thought to myself that the history of words could be a key to the past. In the layered meanings and etymologies of the simplest word were arcane codes that could reveal long-lost secrets.1
As the narrative unfolds, these etymological avenues do indeed provide essential insights that help Mr. Parfitt pursue his quest. (If you want to know whether our friend Tudor succeeds in finding the Ark, you’ll have to read the book. I’m not telling.)
Familiarity with etymologies can also assist those of us who do not embark on arduous journeys in search of dangerous artefacts shrouded in mystery and lost in the shifting sands of time. Word roots may not give up secrets of the ancients or reveal the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything (which, thanks to Douglas Adams2, we know is 42), but they can be useful to help us remember the purpose of a sentence (to express a complete thought; from the Latin sententia, which means “thought, meaning”) or the difference between a robot and an android. Even small words can carry a train of valences behind them — as does The Goose with the Golden Feathers that latched onto people who tried to pluck a plume from her tail or Iron Man saving people fallen out of an airplane — that can bring new resonance to our writing or help us navigate the shoals of new vocabulary. The Oxford English Dictionary’s entries that trace the metamorphic chain of signification for the four-letter-words will and kind each take up multiple pages in the OED. Knowing a word’s etymology is to get to know its family: it gives one a personal connection to one’s vocabulary and can provide one with the building blocks to unlock the meanings of words of recent acquaintance — rather like meeting someone for the first time and discovering that the person’s sibling was your college roommate.
For those who are intrigued, here’s the etymology of etymology to start:
If you don’t have a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary handy, try these links to etymology sites and on-line dictionaries:
1.Tudor Parfitt, The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500 Year Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), p. 112. Parfitt also explains, on page 165, “that the word Arca in Latin, from which the English word Ark is derived, is also the origin of the English word arcane: esoteric, mysterious,” and asks, “Is there anything that is not mysterious about the Ark?”
2. See Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 120.