Words and Phrases
Words have an interest in themselves quite apart from the interest that we may take in the subjects with which they deal. They illustrate the history of the people who use them, but their chief interest is that they enable us to understand how human beings behave and think. By casually turning over the pages of a dictionary we can acquire a surprising amount of miscellaneous knowledge expressed with admirable conciseness. Paul Jennings, who has an eye for such things, discovered in Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary an entry which should arouse the interest of any well-constituted browser: ‘Taghairm, … In the Scottish Highlands, divination; esp. inspiration sought by lying in a bullock’s hide behind a waterfall. (Gael.)’. Single words can not only convey pieces of recondite information like this; they can tell us a lot about the thoughts and way of life of our ancestors. Window is from ON vindauga, a compound of the Scandinavian cognates of wind and eye. It was the hole in the wall of a house which admitted the light and allowed those inside to look out; in the days before glass was used it also admitted the wind. The poetry of the second element is balanced by the realism of the first. An eavesdropper was someone who stood under the eaves of a house in order to hear what was going on inside.
KeywordsEveryday Life Oxford English Dictionary Functional Shift English Vocabulary Regional Dialect
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