Word nerdery

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There are two kinds of people in the world. Trump supporters and … no. People who believe in global warming and … no. The Kardashians and … no.

I mean yes, you can divide humans up that way, and many more. But the biggest difference, obviously, is between people who think that two apparently separate words are connected, and people who don’t.

People who do are often wrong. At least I am. Take the word ‘tormentor.’ With my almost-nonexistent classical education, more dangerous than a non-existent one, I decided it comes from tauros (the Greek word for bull) and mentor (teacher, again Greek, from the Odyssey). So a tormentor is a ‘bull teacher.’

Wrong. My party-pooping Dictionary of Word Origins says it’s from the Latin tormentum, ‘instrument of torture,’ which comes from torquère which means twist.

But ‘bull teacher’ is miles more fun.


That’s the beauty of etymology, the study of word origins. It’s a kind of detective work, in my case based on ignorance and red herrings.

To get really confusing, take the etymology of the word ‘etymology.’ It comes from the Greek word etumos which means ‘true.’

It’s often mixed up with ‘entomology’, the study of insects. This comes from the Greek entémnein, which means ‘cut up’. The idea is that insects are creatures ‘cut up’ into segments.


So you could say the entomology of etymology is ‘cutting up’ words into their ‘true’ parts. Or in my case not true. I don’t care. It still makes me happy.

Oh dear. Do I need help?


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