Saturday, August 7, 2010


Ernest Hemingway once said, “All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.” We readily nod our heads in agreement … sounds good. Yet most of us treat familiar words all too casually. It does not occur to us, for example, to look up “right” or “humor” or “mimic,” because we know what they mean. We go to the dictionary mostly when we come across a word whose meaning we can’t begin to guess. And we miss some great lexical adventures.

That Hemingway quote made me aware of this tendency in myself. Determined to fight it, I created an acronym, BAWDY! for the fridge door, where all wisdom resides. Become A Word Detective, You! it reminds me constantly. And my dictionary and I began to keep steady company.

Out of the blue, a familiar word like “robot” would seem worth looking up, and prove itself to be an etymological gem. I got in the habit of snooping around familiar words to see what lurked in their backgrounds. I wrote a poem about it: (please read aloud)

Familiar Words

Have you ever said, or read,

a word you’ve heard a million times,

but now, somehow,

you stop on a dime and mime

the sound around in your mouth?

You grab the D book and look it up,

and the beauty of its def or duty

comes through to you

for the first time and you say, “Hey,”

“this is really, truly interesting!”

Recently, I shared this with my “Crazy About Words” class and randomly selected “amuse” for the group to investigate further.

We noted its earliest recorded use in Middle French in the late 15th century, amuser, (“a,” to cause + “muser” to ponder.) Later it was used in the sense of divert from serious business, but with a negative connotation. By the 18th century it had come into English more in the sense of to entertain.

We were surprised to see it in “The Student’s Dictionary” which our class distributes to each of 250 Third Graders every Fall, defined as “to cause to smile.” And we Googled it to find that its hottest use for the past fifteen years or so is in the phrase amuse-bouche, (literally, to amuse the mouth), a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre served to restaurant patrons as a greeting from the chef de cuisine.

But our best find came when we looked up “muse” and found that it derived from the Greek Muses, nine goddesses begat by Zeus and Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory, who were the inspirations for the arts, poetry, music, dance, literature, history and astronomy. These were the diversions, the entertainment of the ancients.

The word comes down to us through the ages, its meaning evolving with the culture, and now used in a much expanded sense of diversion. The Muse-Goddesses might frown on our wax museums and amusement parks but they are the ultimate culprits.

We word-crazy people had indeed become word detectives.


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