Imagine that you are visiting a restaurant in an unfamiliar city. You are seated and then presented with a menu in a foreign language. The restaurant’s menu does not have any pictures, moment, that you are new to a neighborhood. You visit a local restaurant; are seated and you do not speak the language in which the menu is written. Fortunately, your waitress is a charming young woman who happens to speak enough English to explain, with at least limited success, what is on offer.

You are seated and then presented with a menu in a foreign language.

You ask, in a slightly impolite tone, a bit too loudly and too slowly, what dishes are the house specialties; the young woman looks a bit perplexed, then smiles, because she recognizes the word “special”; you both nod and repeat the word.  The waitress describes a dish that is apparently composed of beef, beans and rice, wrapped in a “tortilla.” If you had never had a burrito, how else might you describe it. What would you call it—there are no analogous words or dishes in English.  We understand beef, beans and rice; but what about a tortilla? Many cuisines have versions of flat breads that are relatively the same; and in most of those cultures, the “bread” is used as a vehicle to contain the meal, i.e., as a “wrap.”

Once the burrito is served, the mystery is solved; and then, you can make a whole series of associations that are unique to you and your experience. These associations may or may not have anything to do with the associations and traditions that are unique to the culture or cultures that produced (or developed) the burrito in the first place. You would not try to re-name the burrito to better align it with your experience; nor would you, on a subsequent visit to the same restaurant, be at a loss to know what to ask for, should you decide that you like burritos. You might, for example, liken the burrito to a meat sandwich, served rolled in a wrap instead of as meat between two slices of bread. You would not, however try to re-name the burrito, by calling it “a rolled sandwich.”

Burrito. NOT a rolled sandwich.

This is all very straightforward. You come to understand what a burrito is, its component parts and possibilities. And, the burrito that is understood by the person making it, the person serving it, and the person eating it (in this latter case, you) does not change its essential nature because of the differences in culture or understanding of what a burrito is. Nor would the essence of what a burrito is, change because we ask for substituted ingredients: pork or chicken instead of beef, no meat at all, just beans and rice, for example. However, if, on the following night, we were to go to a Chinese restaurant and order a plate of spring rolls, we would not, despite the similarities of form, confuse these with burritos.

For the most part, when we are dealing with loan words and even translations of words from one culture to another, especially when it comes to things, meanings stay the same, because the things stay the same. This is not always true when it comes to words that stand in for concepts; consider the words for “word” in Ancient Greek, Latin and English. We will necessarily look at a somewhat more complicated, but I hope familiar example.

And back we go to Ancient Greece.

Recently, I was presenting these ideas about words, of “how words mean,” to a class full of students, most of whom were taking philosophy for the first time. I began simply enough; there is a notion that words are ways to codify images, or perhaps, more appropriately, “imaginings”; and from these imaginings we find limits, in Latin, “de finis” (“of the limit or from the limit”); and this derivation from limits is the definition of a word. I then steered the conversation toward famous quotes about words that the students could recall. The class seemed a bit perplexed; so, I offered a prompt: “In the beginning –”; naturally enough someone chimed in, almost immediately: “was the word”. Since they stopped there, I asked: “and?” Someone else offered, “…and the word was with God.” “Good”—I offered. I turned to the board and carefully wrote,

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος,

καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν,

καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

I turned back to the class, after checking the letters carefully. “Oh” I began, “you don’t like that?” There was probably a smattering of exasperated laughter. “Let’s try this….”

“In principio erat Verbum;

et Verbum erat apud Deum;

et Deus erat Verbum”

“These are the first words from the beginning of the First Book of John. They are the first verse, in Ancient Greek and Latin.” I continued, “In Ancient Greek, it is a magic formula; in Latin it is a mnemonic device; in English it is a theological statement, from which the theology has been drained and forgotten.” I read the verse in Greek: En ark-ay ayn ho loh-gahz, keye ho loh-gahz tahn thdee-ahn, keye thday-ohz ayn ho loh-gahz.  I read the verse in Latin: Een prin-kip-eeoh ehr-at wehr-boom, et wehr-boom ehr-at ah-pood day-oom, et day-oos ehr-at wehr-boom.  I went on to explain how “verbum,” λόγος (“logos”) and “word” all mean a fundamental building block of language, a codification of an idea; but that only “logos” was used by the Ancient Greeks to stand-in for a process—in this case “study” (as shown by the names for studies of Biology, Sociology, Psychology—any “—ology” or “study” in fact); and also, that only “logos” was used to codify the even more mystical transformation of the triune Christian godhead into human history.

In short, I told the class that the “translation” from Greek to Latin to English, was not a translation at all, because so much of the meaning was lost, as the words were converted from one language to the next. There is a point at which exasperation almost always gives way to, if not enthusiasm, at least engagement. Once students are engaged or enraged, (if they stay awake) they can make for themselves the associations requisite to learning on a deep level. This is not, I think, the kind of learning that one can accurately assess as an “outcome”; instead it is indicative of a pattern of learning behaviors, that begins with a series of questions that leads the student to still more questions, rather than simply leading to answers. In this case, for example, students may wonder, if the word, “word” can mean different things at different times, in different languages; and if those meanings can spark a whole range of ideas and images, then what else might be true? What else might one discover, if only one asks the right questions?

How words mean…

So, if we return for a moment to the idea of “how words mean,” we see that the essence of the word, can be (or even, is often) lost in translation. In tracking down the etymology of the word, “word,” we note first, that the word comes into English by 900 of the Common Era. [1] We note too, as summarized above, that the words “logos” and “verbum” bear little relationship to the word “word” in English. We can see cognates for “logos,” in “logic” and the “—ologies”; we can see the relationship between “verbum” in “verb.” The differences, to me at least, seem to point out what has been “lost in translation” from the ancient words until now, from Greek and Roman culture, to contemporary English.

If we turn then, at this point to the OED (vol. II) once again, we notice that there are many entries under “word”; in fact, they run from the bottom of page 279 to the end of the first column on page 284. [2] The actual listing for the various etymological origins is varied and long too. I think the most useful way to think of these derivations is that they all sound and look suspiciously the same in various Germanic and Scandinavian languages; the entries most worth mentioning are all of great antiquity: the Old Teutonic wurdom and the pre-Teutonic wrdh (a diacritical mark under the “d” that I can’t make, takes the place of a vowel.) We can well imagine that the pre-Teutonic form is influenced by the Indo-European form, werdh.  The Indo-European origins point to the Latin verbum and even to a declined Greek verb form for “I will say” (279-280).  Indeed, the “first recorded use” cited in the OED, from Beowulf, ca. 600 CE, of the Old English word, “word”, seems to suggest by context, the spoken or sung utterance, and not a unit of speech or writing.

The essence of the word, word, however, seems to come to us relatively unchanged (in its sound, at least) from the ancient Germanic languages that form the basis for the polyglot, hybrid language of English.

Thanks once again to the very talented Kelly Knox for this detailed and extremely interesting look at the meaning and history behind the word “word”. Keep you eyes peeled for more great etymology pieces.


[1] Brohaugh, William. English Through the Ages: From Old English to Modern Day Slang, a Word -by- Word Birth Record of Thousands of Interesting Words. Writer’s Digest Books, 1998.  

[2] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. 2 , Oxford University Press, 1971

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