What's in a Word | All Blogs

Light reading for a desert isle

By Debra Dobbins

If I were stranded on a desert isle with only one book, I would want a dictionary.

The dictionary contains thousands of stories. Each story is found in the etymology that is placed in double brackets right after the listing of the word’s part of speech. The etymology explains a word’s origin and development.

Case in point: Consider the use of egregious in one of today’s editorials (reproduced below).

I already knew that egregious means very bad, but I didn’t know that it is linked to gregarious, which means sociable.

How could a word with a bad connotation (shade of meaning) be linked to one with a good connotation? The answer lies within double brackets.

Both words date back to the Latin word grex, which meant a flock or a herd, according to Webster’s. Grex was later expanded to gregis.

When I looked up egregious, I was directed to gregarious. I flipped the pages over to it, grumbling a bit because I already knew its meaning.

I became glad I took the time. Armed with the knowledge of both words’ origin, I began to see their connection.

A gregarious, or sociable, person enjoys the company of others and therefore wants to live in and be accepted in “flocks” or “herds.” Put in modern terms, a flock or herd means society.

On the other hand, someone who has committed an egregious error may be excluded from a flock or herd. When our predecessors added the prefix “e”, which means out, to a root word meaning flock or herd, they created a word that originally meant separated from the herd. Put in modern terms, then, an egregious error is one that involves the risk of ejection from one’s social circles.

To learn other words related to egregious and gregarious, check out:

With just a dictionary, I could probably while away the hours on a desert isle for quite some time. Being gregarious, though, I’d eventually spell out HELP in the sand. With some willpower, I’d refrain from adding the word’s part of speech, etymology, definition and synonyms.



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