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A Definition Expedition

Laura Adams & Nicole Wellington, World Languages Faculty

Do you like adventure? Do you like words? Ever just sit around reading dictionaries for fun? We do!

Do you know where many words and expressions that we use in English come from? Well, this is no charade! Grab your boots, hat, backpack, water bottle, binoculars, et cetera, and join your Middle School language teacher guides on a definition expedition in search of Latin, French and Spanish words.

Several different dictionaries on a table

The first stop on our itinerary is a journey into a deep canyon. As you descend, you hear the coyotes ululating. The silhouette of the moon adds a somber ambience. As you swat at the mosquitoes you have a feeling of déjà vu. Wait, have I been here before? This canyon seems so familiar. Suddenly a powerful whirling sound stops you in your tracks. What? A nocturnal tornado? Impossible! It’s surely an omen. You decide to take a detour and turn back!

Now, let the discovery begin! In the first two paragraphs, can you identify the Latin, French and Spanish words or expressions that we use frequently in English? 

From Latin, the language of the ancient Romans, we derive the words and expressions et cetera, itinerary, descend, ululating, nocturnal and omen. From French, the language of France and many countries outside of France, we derive the words and expressions charade, silhouette, ambiance, déjà vu and detour. From Spanish, the language of Spain and also spoken widely outside of Spain, we derive the words coyote, canyon, mosquito and tornado. 

More than half of English words have their roots in Latin, and because the Romans spread their language over much of ancient Europe, English is also influenced by the Romance languages (blends of spoken Latin and local dialects), particularly French. For varied historical reasons French words make up nearly 30% of English. English has borrowed from Spanish as well.

Words have histories. Many have a rich background meaning. Consider such words as “quixotic” (referring to Cervantes' exceedingly idealistic lead character), “gargantuan” (describing Rabelais’ voracious giant king) and “Herculean” (relating to the Greek hero who possessed superhuman strength). 

At the end of the day we rest our feet and realize that the words that create languages are meaningful, even powerful. They paint stories and are poignant (French word!). They add something extra (Latin word!) to our lives, yet we often use them without much thought or examination. There are all kinds of words and expressions whose origins we overlook. 

As you speak, read or write, stop in your tracks and pick a word to examine and research. Where did that word come from? Does it have a backstory? You never know what definition expedition you’ll end up on. Carpe diem et bon voyage!