Word History of the Week: Write

Etymology is,”the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time,” (definition from Wikipedia). We use words every day; I’m using words right now! But for every word we use, an average of 16,000 a day, do you ever think of where those words came from? Did a language god wake up one day and decide that that red, sweet thing that falls from trees is going to be an apple?  Did a linguistician (which isn’t a “real” word) take a vote on what English speakers wanted to call that yummy snack? How did we get any of these words we use?

Every word we use has a colorful origin story spanning hundreds or thousands of years – and that’s only counting words we know of that were written. Think of all the languages that were used before writing was invented!

In these weekly posts, I will be going over the unique history of a specific word. This week’s word is write. First of all, the grammar of the word write. Write is a verb –  an action word. I write, you write, he/she/it writes, etc. You’ve learned all that already haven’t you?

The oldest known word that write derived from is the Proto-German word writanan. (Proto means the earliest form of something – so in this case, the earliest known form of German.) Writanan meant to tear, or to scratch. This makes a lot of sense when you think of how people used to write: scratching on rocks, stocks, parchment. Writing was more like sculpting back then – you had to break out pieces of your physical medium just to have the words be properly read.

Could you image scratching at a rock for all that time just to write 50,000 words?

But that’s just the earliest source for the English word write. The Proto-Germanic word was used by many peoples, and eventually became the Old English word writan. This word had an even more interesting definition: to score, outline, or draw the figure of. This seems even more distance from the original than scratching is; we can understand scratching!

But it’s not as far off as you would think. When you’re writing something, what are you doing really? Scoring something means to count it up, to get something all in place and figure out how much of it you have. To gather the sum total. (That’s my hashed definition, no source there!) Outlining is much similar, but rather than figuring out how much you’re figuring out what the content of the thing is. When you write an outline for a school paper, you’re figuring out the big details you need to cover so you can see the whole thing in a smaller place. And to draw a figure of something is to see the picture of the thing, what it looks like. So, the word writan would have meant: to determine the amount of, the content of, and the shape of a thing.

Writing is a lot like that. Everything we do in writing – whether it’s this blog post or a grocery list – is to communicate something to someone. The amount of tomato soup we want, the content of our minds, or the shape of the space ship you wish Santa would give you. Even if writan wasn’t about putting language into a readable fashion, it’s easy to see why it developed into the word we know today: write.

So the next time you sit down to write something, or to read something for that matter, remember the origin of the word, remember what you’re trying to communicate. And be thankful you have better tools than stone and chisel!

Is there are a word you’d love to know the history of? Comment, and I’ll tell you!

Etymological definition


You may also like...

5 Responses

  1. Cadi says:

    Might the “to score” in ‘writan’s definition not also be related to scoring as in cutting into slightly – you score a line on a piece of card to make it easier to fold down that line?

    Etymology is way fun – definitely looking forward to more Word History posts 🙂

  2. Meshugenah says:

    So, basically this is my favorite blog topic ever.

  3. Emerson says:

    Cadi: You are absolutely right! I hadn’t thought of that when writing up the post. See, it’s pretty easy to do etymology 🙂

    I’m glad we have some fans! Now, what are some words I should tell you about?

  4. Tigersprite says:

    Etymology is the only thing I like about having taken English Language (bah, grammar). I was looking at the word ‘literature’ the other day, which also had the very interesting etymology of ‘written from letters’ or something to that effect.

    Do you know about how the word ‘novel’ evolved from being the concept of newness to the literature some of us write today? A

  5. Emerson says:

    Thanks for the comment Tigersprite! I did know that “novel” meant newness. That word is sort of in an interesting state right now because it still carries both definitions – a novel idea (being either an idea for a novel or a new idea)!

    I’m hoping to look at other words with multiple meanings as well, perhaps with meanings that are no longer in use. It’s amazing how the words evolve. People who don’t know much about linguistics or languages in general, I think, have no idea that language evolves just like every other creature on our planet. It’s a science! It absolutely is. And this is why I love it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *