Etymology

It was just about a year ago that I wrote about our mountain dialect in “What do y’uns say?” and I certainly don’t want to sound like a broken record here.  However, this week I happened upon a great website hosted by the Tennessee State Library at www.tn4me and it made me laugh at myself.  I believe if you can’t laugh at yourself then you aren’t going to have much fun so I wanted to share this with you.

In an article entitled “How They Lived”, the site explores the changing way of life during the period from 1875 to 1930.  That was an incredible time in history and it is always fascinating to study.  At the end, there’s a little game with sayings from the 1870’s.  What made me smile was that I not only understood and recognized most of the terms, but in fact I regularly use them! 

When I’m writing period pieces, I spend a lot of time researching the etymology of words in an effort to keep the dialog and the characters as realistic as possible.  Sometimes I’m shocked when I read the origins of some of our common terms; this time, I was shocked by the age of some of them.

With my strong opinions, I often mention things I don’t “cotton to” and never bothered to wonder how long people have been saying that.  According to the “Online Etymology Dictionary”, using cotton as an agreement verb originated in the 1560’s and is probably from a Welsh word.   

Having been raised on a strong work ethic, to be called ‘no-account’ is among the worst of insults.  After all, no one wants to feel they are worthless.  It’s a label that’s been used since 1845 but comes from the French “of non acompte” that dates to the fourteenth century. 

Power has always been greatly desired, but “powerful” is an adjective we often use for unusual nouns – like a powerful hot day or powerful bad odor.  This use of the word is from the 1820’s. 

The TN4me website noted “vamoose” as an 1870’s word, and the etymology dictionary dates it only back to 1834.  Silly me, I always thought that was a foreign word that we’d just borrowed.  And in fact, we’ve used it since about 1834 and it is from the Spanish vamos although I think we use it with a little more force for the Spanish version means “let’s go”.  I think I first learned that word from my junior high science teacher and I’m pretty sure she was saying something more like “be off with you”.

So, we set a great store by our words and we use a right smart of them.  But I suppose we don’t check the expiration date when we turn a phrase and I think I’m glad we don’t.  Perhaps these old terms connect us by the nigh way to our history.