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An amusing romp through word histories

‘Written in Stone’ makes etymology fun

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8:00am, October 17, 2015
Egyptian papyrus

THEN AND NOW  Words from ancient languages, such as those on this approximately 3,600-year-old Egyptian papyrus, have transformed and carried forward into modern languages.

Written in Stone
Christopher Stevens
Pegasus Books, $27.95

All these words we speak arose somewhere. But what do acrid, acme and acrophobia have in common? They all derive from the ancient Indo-European word ak, which meant sharp, quick or high and pointy.

Imagine such a language, sprinkled with onomatopoeia. Ak sounds sharp. Mei, the ancient word for smile, goes nicely with the facial expression used in saying it. In English, mei lingers on in things that make us smile, like a miracle or a mirror. The ancient opposite was wa, a crying sound that meant empty. It’s still present in want, to be without.

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