Why You Should Study Word Roots

english-language-dayI am constantly asked by puzzled looks why I have a Quizlet set comprised of over 150 Latin and Greek root words. It is not every day that you will find a dedicated etymologist who will study the origins of words. Both Google and the Global Language Monitor estimate that there are over one million words. While English is primarily Germanic, I will only be discussing Latin and Greek. Now unless you are a word enthusiast like me, studying etymology can seem time-consuming, confusing, and completely useless in the long run. Au contraire! I believe that everyone in their right mind could benefit greatly; here is why you should, too!

English is a fairly complicated language, and it is arguably one of the most diverse languages in terms of vocabulary. The majority of scientific, medical, and legal jargon can be traced back to Latin. Have you ever wondered where an animal’s complex name comes from?* Latin. What about lex talionis?* Again, Latin. Or what about the word parallel? Greek. It doesn’t matter if you are a lawyer, a doctor, a taxonomist, or even a lexiphane:* studying root words from these two languages allows you to get a better understanding of our language. You can also play cool games. When I come across a word I don’t know, I guess its definition and then look it up to see if I am right, or I can create new, clever words.* We can all name some obnoxious people we know who overly use those big words to sound intelligent (guilty as charged). Studying roots allows not only pedants but those with smaller vocabularies to break down the word. For those who think it is a waste of time, look at a book of roots and read it. Once you read and come across it enough, it gets ingrained. I am no professional etymologist, but it is a highly educational and entertaining hobby all the same. And yes, it does come in handy in the long run. Even though it has only been a year since I have started studying word histories, I still remember them and use them on a daily basis. Because English borrows from so many different cultures, you also get to experience other languages at the same time. I can speak and translate some basic Latin and Greek phrases with ease with what I know so far. So if you are someone who doesn’t appreciate the English language’s diversity, or if you think it is nonsense, I highly recommend you study etymology.

*Every animal’s classification is based on Carl Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature.
*Lex talionis means “eye for an eye” in legal terms.
*A lexiphane is someone who uses big words.
*Neologikon is made of two Greek roots.

For further reading: http://www.languagemonitor.com
NTC’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Origins by Bob and Maxine Moore (1997)


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