Sunday, May 2, 2010
What's in a Word
In modern English the homophones “flour” and “flower” are worlds apart, but in Elizabethan times the top quality ground wheat (reserved for royal tables) was called the “flower of the wheat,” meaning the very best. The two spellings were interchangeable until the nineteenth century when they began to have quite different meanings.
This is just one of the many tidbits gleaned (no pun intended) from What’s in a Word by Webb Garrison. Thomas Nelson has recently re-issued this book of stories about the backgrounds of more than 350 words and phrases.
Some of the phrases, like “thorn in the flesh” and “skin of our teeth,” come from the Bible, and others, like “crystal” and “diamond,” have Greek and Latin derivations, and others, like “washout” and “stump,” come from the American frontier.
What's in a Word, although not a definitive work, is a fascinating read for anyone interested in words. The book has little value for actually looking up information on a specific word (if you think of a phrase, it probably won’t be in the book and the index is little help even for the words in the book), but in the author’s words, “the vignettes included here are brief enough for bathroom reading.” Enjoy!