Word Wise: Etymology Saves the Day

Whiskey = Water of LifeEtymology. The study of word origins. My hero.

Say what?

Okay. Suppose you’re at a party. You’d like to start a conversation. Who could resist you as you raise your glass—and one eyebrow—and ask, ”Know where the word whiskey comes from?” Heads turn your way. You swirl your glass. “Usquebae. Usque means water. Bae means life. Usquebae. Whiskey. Water of life. To your health!” Who knows what that bit of etymology might lead to.

Not exactly heroic, you say?  Okay. Someone calls you nimrod. You could throw a punch. Or—knowing that this name meant “mighty hunter” for more than 2,000 years (until Bugs Bunny used it to taunt Elmer Fudd)—you could thank the heckler and move on. Conflict averted.

Still not convinced?

Three months ago, I had knee surgery. Arthroscopy. Miraculously routine. My knee was supposed to recover quickly. After a couple weeks, though, it still hurt. I got into physical therapy. My PT team and I did all kinds of things to that knee. We bent it and stretched it. We walked it up steps and down steps. We iced it. We ultrasounded it.  “Shouldn’t take long,” the therapists said. “Couple more weeks, good as new.”

A couple weeks turned into a couple months. A lump developed on the back of my knee. The PT gang called it a baker’s cyst. They told me that it would go away when the general swelling went down. “Give it time.”

More weeks went by. “Doing a lot of baking?” my PT pals would ask. I had not done any baking.

“What might cause this thing?”

“It just happens sometimes.”

After three months of PT, I went back to the doctor. “You have a baker’s cyst,” he said. “Do you know why it’s called a baker’s cyst?”

“Did a Dr. Baker discover it? I can think of lots of things I’d rather pass my name on to.”

“Baker’s cysts are called baker’s cysts because bakers get them. Because they spend a lot of time standing.”

A lot of time standing! A couple days before my knee surgery, I had installed a standing station at my desk. For all these months, I had spent six, eight, ten hours a day standing at my computer. Good for my duff. Bad for my knee.

After that doctor visit, I went home and lowered the computer station. For the next week, I worked sitting. The baker’s cyst disappeared. The knee healed. Etymology was my Florence Nightingale. Word origins to the rescue!

What’s your favorite word origin?  Post a comment to share the scoop.

Postscript (January, 2014):

A fellow tech writer, Graeme Wilson, informs me that I was misinformed about the origin of the term “baker’s cyst.” Well, knock me down. So much for the thesis of this post. My true hero is the interactive Web (and Graeme). Anyone interested in “the rest of the story” can find it in the comments here: http://howtowriteeverything.com/etymology-saves-day.
Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia has run a tech-writing business for ... a long time. The author of "Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)," she taught tech writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program. For more, see howtowriteeverything.com.

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