Serendipitously rite—er, right

For the past couple of months, I’ve written about some of my favorite words and their distractions. Today I want to marvel at our lingua franca more generally.

Last week I nattered on about cliché and stereotype, and how they both came from the French and that cliché meant the same thing as stereotype: a stereotype; that is, a plate used in printing. The marvelous thing about those two words is how they have evolved over the past several hundred years so that today in English they have very different meanings, one reserved for short expressions, the other for (usually) demeaning assumptions of The Other.

That’s the story of the English language. It is a mongrel language, borrowing and stealing from other languages whatever it wants, cliché and stereotype being just two examples. We’re unashamed of this, and it does make our language more interesting. (Where would equestrians be without jodhpurs, that wonderful word, named after the Indian city where such trousers were common? Half-naked on the horse, I suppose.)

I find the story of words quite by chance, or serendipitously. That word comes from the title of a Persian folk tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, and was coined as an English word in 1754 by Horace Walpole, who noted that the three princes always seemed to stumble onto good things by happenstance. One prince is fine, two is better, but three is serendipitous.

I stumbled on the story of Serendip when the editor of Roget’s Thesaurus told me that she found new citations for the thesaurus through serendipity. That got me to wondering how such a word came into the language, and illustrated for me how English is always growing.

To give you a ridiculous idea of how rich our language is, consider that Latin had one way to spell the word for “right” (rectus) while Middle English, the language used when it became a language of record, had no less than 77 ways. I won’t list them here, but you can refer to Word by Word (by Cory Stamper, a book well worth reading if you love words), page 39, for the list.

Today we have only four ways to spell the word: right, rite, write and wright.

Even better, we have a dozen ways to pronounce it, thanks to U.S. dialects. Not only do dialects give us wonderfully varied pronunciations (Hah-vd Yahd, anyone?), they also give us amazing regionalisms of wording. For example, and as Ms. Stamper goes to lengths to point out, irregardless, that icepick in many ears, is actually an old Southernism meaning extreme disregard.

Is it a made-up word? No more than serendipity. All words are made up. And that’s the fun. Finding out where a word came from, who thought to put the letters in that order, is a great adventure. Maybe not like boar-hunting, but never a bore.

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4 thoughts on “Serendipitously rite—er, right”

  1. Can you tell us about the phrase, ‘pin money?’ I used it the other day and confused someone. I explained what it meant, and then looked it up online. I’m not satisfied that what I found is the whole truth so I’m here to ask the oracle. Oracle?

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    1. The long answer comes from Rev. Dr. E. Cobham Brewer, who originated “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.” In the 1870 edition, he explained that jewelry was so expensive to produce that there was a British law that it could be sold only on Jan 1 & 2. Ladies of all varieties flocked to buy them, using a portion of their household money. This money was a lady’s yearly household allowance, but it became known as pin money, because of the aforementioned two-day bonanza. Pin money was a considerable sum, because it had to last all year and pay for all household needs. Now that pins are 25 cents at your local thrift shop, pin money means a trivial amount. (If you don’t have a copy of Brewer’s, get one!)

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