« A Warming Warning | Main | The Occuptation Of Holland »

The Scrivener: That's Great!

The next time you are about to use the word “great’’ think accomplished, admirable, brilliant, eminent, excellent, famous
good, grand....

Brian Barratt, a man who fully appreciates that words are far more valuable than jewels, wishes that more people would read dictionaries in bed.

For more of Brian’s delectable demonstrations of how to use words to best effect please click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page. And do visit his Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas

There are several very common words which have become clichés and lost their meaning and impact. Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use clichés — they can be beneficial in small doses — but the tedious repetition of some words and phrases makes you wish that more people would read dictionaries in bed, doesn’t it?

Hopefully, basically and arguably are at the top of the list. Have you noticed that when people being interviewed on TV use those words, it’s a fairly clear indication that they don’t know the answer to the question?

There’s another over-used word which I don’t think I’m allowed to write here. It begins with f. It is not a ‘good old Anglo-Saxon word’. It came into English only about 500 years ago, from Middle Dutch fokken, to strike. It’s a jolly good word to describe a specific event that two people can arrange in their privacy of their own rooms, but it gets awfully boring when used for every other purpose under the sun.

Another one that I find irksome is ‘great’, in exclamations such as ‘That’s great!’ Yes, I know I’m being pedantic. I know what the speakers mean. But there are so many other words that could be used, especially in writing.

A few years ago, I ploughed through several thesauruses to find some alternatives to suggest to young students. Naturally, I found hundreds of words. Here are some of them:

Let’s dig into some word histories. For example, 'important' is from Latin importare, to bring in. The ancient Indo-European root is per-, to lead, to pass over. We have a great number of words from that root. Words related to important include: portable, deport, export, import, portfolio, report, rapport, support, transport.

'Tremendous' is related to Latin tremere, to tremble. It was first used in English early in the 17th century, literally meaning ‘causing trembling’. In other words, dreadful. The more general meaning of ‘arousing wonder’ did not appear until early in the 19th century.

Whereas most of the synonyms came into English around the 13th and 14th centuries, ‘great’ comes from Old English. 1,000 years ago, in various spellings, it meant thick, big, coarse, and was also used in the senses of a great deal, a great many. It soon took on the extended meaning of stout, corpulent, when applied to people or animals. By about 1200, that applied to the appearance of a pregnant woman, hence ‘great with child’. The figurative usage implying important, eminent, developed during the 13th and 14th centuries, and the current more general meaning of ‘excellent’ arose early in the 19th century.
I don’t know about you, but I love wandering through this wonderful world of word histories. Basically, I think it’s great, and hopefully you will too.

Copyright © 2002, 2007 Brian Barratt


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.