Why Word Nerd?

Anyone that knows me well knows that I am a generally tongue-in-cheek kinda gal, quick with a riposte, and someone who likes to play with words to the point where I even make them up on occasion. Nerracelery is one. Adaptadibbly is another. I’m sure you can infer their meaning (or even put them in a sentence: I am not nerracelery adaptadibble, but I do try). Besides, being called a word nerd is infinitely better than being called that other thing.

In all seriousness though, language, and the things it can do, fascinates me. Language, in my opinion, is our most valuable socio-cultural tool. It can be limiting or expansive; it paints pictures and sculpts songs; our understanding of the world is inextricably shaped and framed by it. Language is king. Or queen. Or whatever the non-binary equivalent is. Monarch? Oh my gosh, Language, there you go again!

While semiotics was on my radar long before I knew what it was, my interest in philology was piqued during one of my undergrad modules, Medieval Life and Literature. I had a slight advantage when it came to reading texts in Middle English in that I speak French fluently, have a decent knowledge of German and studied Latin in school (that may have been a long time ago, but the French helps with Latin-based languages as well). Elements of these languages were clearly apparent in the English of Chaucer and Malory, and listening to my tutor reading aloud from these texts brought the language to life in a way that not only made it easier to understand but also highlighted some of the more recent roots of our mother tongue. It was like music.

I remember quite clearly, however, the one word that jumped off the Chaucerian page and into my head, making the light bulb drop and the penny go off simultaneously. Or perhaps in the wrong order… That word was housbonde (haus-bon-duh). Housbonde, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the forebear of the modern husband. But it’s not the clear visual and aural relationship between the words that grabbed my attention so much as the cultural history of what our modern-day husband once signified, at its root: house | bond. The bond between houses—when you take house to mean family name, fortune, reputation, status and so on. Of course! From the societal perspective, in those days marriage was largely a business arrangement – a merger, if you will – with estates of all sizes being run as the business in question. So if you bound your house to one of ‘lower’ standing, it was effectively bad business. Conversely, a ‘good marriage’ was one that increased your clout in society.

I had a friendly debate just the other day with a good friend. He was arguing that our written language ought to be spelled more phonetically. I can see his point, but whilst our spelling of words often seems an impediment to writing, to alter it would, in my mind, annul the rich history of how English got to where it is now, even with its nonsensical silent letters and the advent of text-speak. Why would you want that, when delving just a little into the history of one seemingly insignificant little word like husband can evoke visions of wimples and hauberks, castles and hovels? It would be like telling australopithecus to get back in her tree. And where would that leave us, hmm?

So I’ll keep my silent gees and seventeen different ways to pronounce the letter ‘U’, and I’ll take my text-speak, too: language is as alive as we are and it evolves just the same. To deny its history is to deny what makes us human.

If feeling that way makes me a nerd then I’ll wear the badge with pride. To be a nerd is to be excited by stuff, and I can’t think of anything cooler.

Lil: word nerd at large

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