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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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Nov 16, 2018

Today's episode kicks off a new series on "toponymy," or the study of place names. In this general overview, we take a look at some of the historical and etymological trends that most often impact place names, such as colonialism and the commemoration of important individuals. 

Oct 30, 2018

Nowadays, a “gym” is a place for fitness and exercise. It’s a shortening of the word “gymnasium,” which derives from the Greek word gymnasion. In the Ancient Greek world, a gymnasion was not only a place for exercise, but also a hub for philosophical study and learning. Today’s episode explores the evolution of the “gymnasium” as a cultural institution and also looks at how some of the word’s cognates in other lanaguges differ in meaning. 

Oct 15, 2018

In the court system of Ancient Athens, the kategoria was a formal accusation. However, when the philosopher Aristotle borrowed the word kategoria to enumerate his “categories of being,” he intended it to mean the “highest order of classification.” Over the course of this episode, we explore the subtle link between an “accusation” and “categorization,” in addition to the philosophical side of Aristotle’s “Categories.” 

Oct 1, 2018

The Modern English word "apology" derives from the Ancient Greek word "apologia." However, in the Ancient Greek work "Plato's Apology," Plato doesn't "apologize" for anything, at least not in the modern sense. That's because an "apology" was originally a "self-defensive" manner of speech. In this episode, we look at how this rhetorical technique developed into an expression of sincere regret. 

Sep 12, 2018

In Modern English, "sophistication" is a desirable characteristic. However, the word derives from "sophistry," an Ancient Greek intellectual movement with a historically bad reputation. In today's episode, we consider this bad reputation from various perspectives and how it has impacted the development of "sophistic" words over the course of history. 

Sep 2, 2018

In the pre-modern world, "philosophy" referred to all forms of intellectual knowledge. Today, the discipline of "philosophy" is just one aspect of the traditional field of philosophia, or "love of knowledge."  

Aug 20, 2018

The pronoun "they" was borrowed into English from Old Norse. It's an odd borrowing because within a given language, the words for pronouns tend to remain consistent over time. In today's episode, we explore the entire history of "they," from its roots as Proto-Germanic demonstrative adjective to its modern usage as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun in English. 

Aug 1, 2018

Subjectification is a unique linguistic process by which a word evolves to reflect the subjective viewpoint of the speaker using it. For example, the word "very" used to mean "true," but over time, it lost its objectivity and merely became a way of emphasizing subjective points of view. In this episode, we explore this process in a broad sense and look at a few more examples. 

Further reading:

https://web.stanford.edu/~traugott/resources/TraugottDavidseIntersbfn.pdf

http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.1028.5275&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Jul 17, 2018

The word "the" is the sole definite article in the English language. It's also the most common word in our language. However, for such a grammatically fundamental word, its history isn't as straightforward as one might think. Old English had a whopping twenty different forms of the definite article, all of which collapsed into the single, versatile word "the" by the time of Modern English. We discuss some of these older forms and their evolutions. 

Jul 6, 2018

In this crossover episode, Steve and I discuss the linguistic influence of the King James Bible and some common English idioms that have Biblical etymologies. 

Jun 30, 2018

The -ly suffix is a contraction hiding in plain sight. It is cognate with the word "like," and indeed, it literally means "like." "Sadly" is sad-like. "Madly" is mad-like. Amazingly, both "like" and "-ly" derive from a root word meaning "body or corpse." Over the course of this episode, we try to make sense of this semantic evolution. 

Jun 14, 2018

To be or not to be? Well, if you're conjugating the verb, you're most likely using a form that does not sound like "to be." "To be" is the most irregular verb in the English language, and in today's episode, we explore why this is the case from historical and technical linguistic viewpoints. 

Jun 4, 2018

Grammar is one of the defining features of language. In today's episode, we look at some of the fundamentals of grammar in general, and then take a brief tour through the historical evolution of English grammar itself. Part 1 in a five-part series. 

May 5, 2018

Today's episode serves as an "epilogue" to the series on Biblical etymology. "Secular," of course, means "unaffiliated with religion," but originally, it was a word used to describe the measurement of long spans of time. Roughly equivalent to a century, the "saeculum," as it was known in Ancient Rome, was celebrated with pagan rituals, theater, and games. Pagan rituals ... how ironic. Over the course episode, we trace its development from antiquity to the 19th century philosophical movement.  

Apr 24, 2018

The word "God" is not derived from the original Biblical texts. It was a term originally used in Germanic paganism that was adapted to Christianity many centuries after it had already been in use. In the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, "God" is called by many names, and these diverse titles don't necessarily translate clearly into English. In today's episode, we dissect a handful of Hebrew terms for "God" that are used in the original Hebrew of the Bible. 

Apr 1, 2018

In the Bible, the word "Hell" is a common English translation of three main Greek and Hebrew words, and the meanings of those three words hardly resemble that of Hell we know today. In addition to the etymology of "hell" itself, this episode explores the implications of those original Biblical terms.

Mar 6, 2018

The letter J is a direct descendent of the letter I. Based on their dissimilar sounds, it's an unlikely genetic connection, and today's story explores how this development took place. To keep the theme of Biblical etymology going, it uses this story as a way of examining the evolution of the pronunciation of "Jesus."

Feb 20, 2018

Greek gods. Dead, Golden Age heroes. Conscience. Guardian angel. Evil spirits. All of these things and more were once associated with the word daimon, the Ancient Greek predecessor of the Modern English "demon." Originally a neutral term that did not imply good or bad, today's episode looks at how this pagan Greek term became the embodiment of evil spirits. 

Jan 26, 2018

On average, the word "church" appears in English bibles 115 times. However, "kuriakon" the word from which "church" derives, only appears in the original Greek text twice, and its usage has nothing to do with a place of worship. The word "church" is a translation of "ekklesia," a different Greek word meaning "assembly." In this episode, we examine the long and complex history of how the translation of how "ekklesia" was codified as "church" and how this translation probably isn't correct. 

Jan 14, 2018

Up until Modern English, the English language distinguished between its singular and plural second person pronouns: "Thou" was the singular, and "ye" was the plural. Today, these have been replaced by a single pronoun, "you." "Thou" and "ye" are common Biblical pronouns in English, and there's more to their usage than just preserving an old linguistic tradition. In today's episode, we examine the semantic implications of these archaic pronouns in English translations of the Bible. 

Dec 31, 2017

Today's episode serves as an introduction to an extended series on Biblical etymology. In it, we discuss the difficulties of translating ancient texts--particularly holy texts--into modern languages. Over the course of this series, we will gain insight into the overall development and evolution of Judaism and Christianity from the unlikely perspective of etymology. 

Dec 15, 2017

When compared to the other numbers between ten and twenty, "eleven" and "twelve" stick out like a sore thumb. If they followed the construction of the rest of the teen numbers, they'd be called one-teen and two-teen, respectively, but of course, this isn't the case. In today's episode, we uncover what "eleven" and "twelve" are all about. 

Dec 1, 2017

The emergence of the words "algebra" and "algorithm" can be traced back to the life of one man, an Arabic mathematician named Al-Kworizmi. Today's episode looks at the history of Al-Kworizmi's works and their impact on the Western world, particularly on European languages. 

Oct 27, 2017

"Chemistry" as we know it is a rational science. However, both the word "chemistry" and the science itself evolved out of the pre-scientific practice of "alchemy." In today's episode, we look at the origins of alchemy, a few theories regarding its etymology, and how medieval Arabic plays into Europe's inheritance of this word. Finally, we consider the circumstances under which "alchemy" became "chemistry" as we know it today. 

Oct 11, 2017

Unlike most Arabic loanwords, the word "serendipity" was not borrowed from a foreign language, but invented by an eighteenth century Englishman. It's based on "Serendip," an old Arabic word for the nation of Sri Lanka, and was inspired by an Italian folk tale originally composed in Persian. The odd coinage of "serendipity" is an international story that spans many cultures, languages, and time periods. 

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