English Words and Their Background

By George H. McKnight | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXI
WORDS AND ARCHÆOLOGY

Words may be turned to a remarkable variety of uses. Not only may they be made to serve a practical purpose in the communication of thought and feeling, but as has been seen, they may be made to serve in exhibiting interesting processes of thought. In still another way they may be used. If their meanings are traced back to the customs and modes of thought in which they had their origin, words may be made to exhibit stages in the history of human culture.

Many a word of recent introduction into English, if its origin is sought, will conduct one on a long journey and may introduce one to a scene of romantic interest. The word taboo, for instance, transports one to the islands of the South Seas and brings before one a picture of a magic circle about some person or thing marked as sacred or accursed, a circle the circumference of which it is fatal to cross. Such a modern word affords a glimpse at the life of distant peoples of our own times. Many of the older words may be made to serve a similar purpose in bringing up scenes from lives of our own ancestors in the distant past. The word read, for example, in its history carries one far back in the life of the Teutonic race. It introduces one to a scene of magic among Teutonic peoples, where the priest, or head of the family, picks up from the white cloth on which they have been scattered bits of wood on which certain marks have been written, that is to say 'scratched.' He then proceeds to read, that is to say, 'to interpret' the marks on the wood, in this way forecasting events. Such

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