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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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. 

Sep 24, 2017

Today's episode serves as an intro to a miniseries on the influence of Arabic on the English language. As a Semitic language, Arabic is very foreign to English. We take a look at some of the basic linguistic and cultural features of Arabic that make it stand apart from the rest of the languages discussed on this podcast thus far. 

Sep 11, 2017

At last, the finale in the Words for Granted miniseries on the days of the week! We conclude with a investigation of "Saturday" and "Sunday." "Saturday" comes from a root that literally means "day of Saturn." Unlike the rest of the English names for the days of the week, it is a direct etymological descendent of the original Latin name for Saturday. "Sunday," of course, comes from a root that literally means "day of the sun." In this episode, we also compare and contrast these English names with their Romance language equivalents. 

Aug 19, 2017

Part four of the Days of the Week miniseries! This time, we investigate "Thursday" and "Friday," or "Thor's Day" and "Frigg's Day." Like the other days of the week we've discussed thus far, the names "Thursday" and "Friday" are loan translations of the Latin names for the days of the week.  

Aug 2, 2017

In Old English, the word for "Wednesday" was Wodnesdaeg, which literally meant "Woden's day." It comes from a loan translation of the Latin dies mercurii, which literally meant "day of Mercury," because Woden was the Germanic god associated with the Roman god mercury. This much is for certain. But how did the /o/ in Wodnesdaeg shift to the /e/ in "Wednesday?" This is a bit of a linguistic mystery, and we discuss some of the possibilities.

Jul 14, 2017

In today's episode, we begin our investigation of the individual etymologies of each day of the week. Both "Monday" and "Tuesday" are ultimately loan translations of the Latin word dies lunae (Luna's day) and dies martis (Mars's day), respectively. Luna, the Roman moon goddess, was identified with Mani, the Germanic moon god, and Mars, the Roman god of war, was identified with Tiw, the chief deity in the original Germanic pantheon. But that's just scratching the surface. Both "Monday" and "Tuesday" contain unexpected stories that reveal to us the cultures of our linguistic ancestors. 

Jul 5, 2017

The days of the week are part of the core vocabulary of any language. However, their etymologies are rooted in ancient, pagan mythologies. In this episode, we trace the history of our modern calendar back to ancient Rome, particularly the seven-day week. As the seven-day week was transmitted from the Romans to the Germanic tribes that would eventually produce the English language, a series of loan-translations took place. 

Jun 13, 2017

In today's episode, we look at the evolution of a single Latin verb, secare, meaning "to cut," into its many English derivatives, including "section," "sector," "insect," and others. In doing so, we answer question fundamental to the study of etymology: "What EXACTLY is a root word?" In attempt to understand the answer to this question as deeply as possible, we cover also cover the technical linguistic topics of morphology and semantics. 

May 29, 2017

Historically, the word "scene" has had close ties to the theater, but it did not always refer to "subdivisions within in a play." The Greek word skene originally meant "tent or booth." It's an odd etymology, and today's episode explores multiple theories that seek to explain where this sense may have come from. 

May 15, 2017

Today, "comedy" is a genre of entertainment that makes us laugh. However, this was not always the case. The word derives from a Greek compound that most likely meant "revel song," and it's culturally rooted in a ancient festival called the ... penis parade? Yes, the penis parade. Yet humor was not always the main component of "comedy" as it is today. Covering topics as disparate as Dante's "Divine Comedy" and Punch and Judy puppet shows, this episode covers a condensed yet extensive history of the genre of comedy.

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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