Why I Enjoy Words

The joy I take in words—their origin, meaning, history—comes from the man that I am. I spent my professional career as a linguist in seven languages. I worked as a spy using signals intelligence, the intercept and exploitation of the enemy’s radio communications, to inform friendly forces on the enemy’s whereabouts, his intent, and the size of his units. But all that came from my natural bent for languages. As a child I taught myself French and Italian, had four years of Latin in high school, studied German (among other things) in college, learned Vietnamese at the Army Languages School (now the Defense Language Institute), took classes in Chinese at Georgetown University, and studied Spanish at the Howard Community College, next door to me in Columbia, Maryland.

One end result of all that is my fascination with words, especially in English, the most polyglot language currently spoken. I take pleasure in discovering the origin of words and their etymology. For that, I use the classic Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English by Eric Partridge (Greenwich House, 1983) and the Online Etymological Dictionary to discover how words evolved. But I also trace the history of a given word and how it came to have its current meaning.

The most common and down-to-earth words in English come from the Anglo-Saxon roots of our language. But we have added to our vocabulary by borrowing from French (primarily because of the eleventh century Norman invasion of England led by the French-speaking William, the Conqueror). Later, as we delved into more complex issues, we appropriated words from Greek and Latin. And as Americans traveled the globe, we borrowed words from many different languages around the world.

We have, therefore, more words than we know what to do with. And I as a writer am blessed with endless choices as to what word to use to express precisely my intent.

How lucky can a writer be?

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