Words for Granted

Words for Granted is a podcast that looks at how words change over time. Host Ray Belli uses language--more specifically, individual words--as a way of making connections among history, culture, religion, and society.
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Words for Granted


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Apr 21, 2017

The word "tragedy" is rooted in Greek theater. It's a dramatic form that stills exists today, but where does the word etymologically come from? Suffering? Despair? Heartache? No, no, and no. It most likely comes from a Greek word meaning "goat-song." In today's episode, we look at a few theories that explain this oddball etymology. 

Apr 7, 2017

The word "tyrant" is steeped in the political history of Ancient Greece. However, it didn't always refer to cruel rulers. Originally, a "tyrant" was a morally neutral term for someone who usurped the throne and took over leadership on his own terms. Most of the early Greek tyrants were actually lauded by their subjects.

Joining me in the historical exploration of "tyrants" and "tyranny" is Ryan Stitt from the History of Ancient Greece. (Let's just say he knows a lot more about the details of Ancient Greek history than I do!) You can find a link to his website below.  


Mar 25, 2017

English uses many different suffixes to indicate ethnicities. Each suffix entered the language independently, and each suffix has a story to tell. This episode attempts to elucidate the geopolitical distribution of the four main categories of ethnic suffixation in English: -an (including -ian and -ean), -ish, -ese, and -i.

Mar 10, 2017

Today's episode looks at the evolution of the modern political sense of the word "filibuster." Ultimately borrowed from a Dutch word meaning "pirate," "filibuster" originally referred to Americans who organized unauthorized military invasions of Spanish colonies in Central America and the West Indies seeking political power and wealth. 

Feb 23, 2017

Part two of the Words for granted politics-themed miniseries! In this episode, we explore the origins of the word "candidate." It derives from candidus, the Latin word for "white," which describes the typical attire worn by Roman politicians running for office. We also examine some unlikely cognates derived from this same root word. 

Feb 12, 2017

The presidential inauguration is a tradition inherited from the Ancient Romans. The word "inauguration" is rooted in "augury," the Ancient Roman practice of interpreting omens based on the flight patterns of birds. Over the course of today's episode, we discuss how how this unlikely religious tradition gave us the sense of "inauguration" used today. 

Jan 27, 2017

The letter C has split personalities. Sometimes it has a hard "K" sound, sometimes it has a soft "S" sound, and some other times, it's a part of letter combinations whose pronunciations vary from word to word. The cause of these split personalities is rooted in a complicated history, both in the writing and pronunciation of the letter. Today's episode explores the long term evolution of "C" from its origins in ancient Phoenicia to its role in Modern English. 

Jan 15, 2017

There are two main etymological categories for "tea": te-derived and cha-derived. Both are ultimately derived from different dialects of Chinese. Based on the geographical distribution of these two etymological categories, we can learn a lot about the history of the tea tea trade itself. The etymology of "tea" in any language is an indication of who was trading with whom. 

Jan 4, 2017

According to literary critic Raymond Williams, "culture" is "one of two or three most complicated words in the English language." After putting this episode together, I couldn't agree more. "Culture" is really many words rolled into one. Today's narrative traces the word's unexpected origins as a farming term to its anthropological usage today. Along the way, we'll encounter and explore many different opinions about what culture is.

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Dec 21, 2016

The spelling of the word "two" is wildly un-phonetic. Today's episode explores the origins of that silent W and the circumstances that eroded its pronunciation. Along the way, Ray discusses some less-than-obvious derivatives of the word "two" and the technical characteristics of vowels. 


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Dec 10, 2016

Men's perfume known as "cologne" takes its name from the German city in which it was invented. But if Cologne is a German city, why does the perfume have a distinctly French name? Why does German spell the city with a "K," while English spells it with a C? And where does the name of the city itself ultimately come from? Today's episode tackles the answers to these questions and more. 

Nov 26, 2016

Today's episode explores the etymological and cultural connections between the words "sinister" and "left," as in, "left-handed." In the world of ancient Rome, the left hand was surrounded by an unlucky superstition. Though the superstition has faded away, the original word denoting this connection--"sinister"--has not. While the evolution of "sinister" is the focus of today's episode, it fits into a larger theme of etymological biases against the left hand found in languages around the world. 

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Oct 11, 2016

"Calques" are loan translations. Basically, these are words or phrases whose meanings have been literally translated from one language into another. Words such as "flea market," "skyscraper," and "translation" all came into English this way. Today's episode looks at a number of words that have been calqued into English and out of English.

Oct 9, 2016

What is the "true" meaning of the idiomatic expression "to beg the question?" Well, it depends on what one means by "true." Today, "to beg the question" most commonly is used as a synonym for "to raise the question," but historically, "to beg the question" had a very different meaning. It involved neither "begging" nor a "question," but rather, a philosophical fallacy of circular reasoning. The expression--or rather, the meaning of the expression--can be traced back to Aristotle. Over the course of about two thousand years, a series of mistranslations and semantic corruptions have resulted in "beg the question's" modern "misusage." 

Oct 8, 2016

The word "ostracism" can be traced back to Ancient Athens. For the Ancient Athenians, an "ostracism" was not a sociological phenomenon, but an electoral vote that sought to protect the integrity of democracy. Today's episode provides a concise overview of Ancient Athenian society and looks at the details of the ancient ostracism vote.

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Oct 8, 2016

Amateurs get a bad name. The professional/amateur dichotomy portrays them as inept, inexperienced, and at best, avocational. However, the word "amateur" was not always a part of this dichotomy. In fact, it's derived from the Latin word for "love." Today's episode explores the negative evolution of the word as a product of capitalist values. 


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Sep 13, 2016

The etymology of "handicap" is the source of a myth that dates back to sixteenth century England. The myth claims that "handicap" is a mutated contraction of the expression "cap in hand," an old euphemism for begging. However, "handicap" is in fact a contraction of "hand in cap," a popular Medieval bartering game. Over the course of today's episode, we'll see how the word came to mean "a physical or mental disability" and why it's considered to be a politically incorrect term.


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Sep 7, 2016

In today's episode, we look at the etymology of mouse, but really, it's a springboard into a far more complicated topic: the word "mice," its irregular plural form. Why do we say "mice" and not "mouses" when referring to more than one mouse? The answer lies in the grammar of an ancient tongue that predates modern English by thousands of years. This is the most linguistic-heavy episode of Words for Granted yet, so first-time listeners, beware!

Aug 26, 2016

The English language utilizes the word "cell" in a handful of contexts. We have prison "cells", brain "cells", battery "cells", and of course, "cell" phones. At first glance, these various applications of the word "cell" seem unrelated, but if we dig a little deeper into their etymological roots, we discover that they in fact originate from a single source: Medieval monasteries. In today's episode, we explore the unlikely historical relationship between the living quarters of Medieval Christian monks and the modern technology behind the cellular phone. 

Aug 14, 2016

Today's episode begins a short mini-series that explores the origins of technology-themed words. Although digital technology didn't permeate our culture at large until the end of the twentieth century, the word "digital" has been around for centuries. If you're a tech nerd, you probably already know what the term refers to, but if you're not, then you're in for a surprise. Furthermore, we discuss why usage of the term may begin to wane in the upcoming years. 

Aug 5, 2016

The word "comfort" once described the spiritual consolation given by God to and an individual. Today, it describes commercialized products ranging from air conditioners to tennis shoes to sofas--a pretty drastic change, to say the least. How did this evolution take place? Today's episode looks at the impact of capitalism and consumerism on our ideas of "comfort". 

Jul 23, 2016

The word "meat" once referred to all forms of solid food, not just animal flesh. In today's episode, Ray explores the ambiguities of the word "meat" as it appears in the King James Bible and debunks a certain myth surrounding meat-related words such as pork, beef, and veal, among others. 

Jul 8, 2016

Welcome to the first Words for Granted bonus episode! This episode explores polysemy, the phenomenon by which a single word can have multiple meanings. Why do we use the word "foot" in the compound word "footnote"? Why does the word "decimation" derive from the Latin word for "ten"? Will books eventually become extinct? Ray answers all of these questions and more, all through the lens of polysemy. 

Jun 26, 2016

Today's episode looks at the Old English sense of the word "wyrd". It was not an adjective, but a noun that is commonly translated into Modern English as "fate". However, this oversimplified translation doesn't tell the word's full story. By comparing and contrasting etymological and cultural evidence, Ray makes the case that "wyrd" and "fate" are really not the same thing at all. 

Jun 10, 2016

"Nice" has gone through more changes than almost any other word in the English language. Over the course of seven centuries, it has been used to mean "stupid", "promiscuous", "elegant", and "effeminate", among countless other things. In this episode, we're going to try to make sense of its perplexing evolution. 

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