Lots of words sound alike (1).
Often, this sort of thing is coincidence: a language uses only so many sounds, and there’s bound to be some overlap between and among them (2).Â Lots of similar-sounding words aren’t related.Â A chaise lounge doesn’t have anything to do with either chasing or lounging (3).Â Niggardly might be vaguely related to gnaw, but is definitely not at all related to the racial slur, though the similar sound means it is not a good word to use these days (which is fine, as there is no poverty of synonyms) (4).
But I want to talk about words that look alike and/or sound alike and which are related.
Grass might be the easiest word in which to see this sort of relationship.Â Grass is what grows.Â It’s what’s green.Â Our linguistic and cultural ancestors saw this stuff growing, green, and decided to name it something similar to those words.Â Or they named those other words after grass.Â Or it happened in some other order, or all at once.Â The important thing is this part: the three words sound similar because they’re related, and because they’re related, they share meaning, in some sense.Â What’s more, we seem to have some of the same connotations as those precursors did for each of the three words, since we’ve taken grass with us (5).
Blade can bring us from grass above to clamp below: it’s a reasonably fecund and surprising word.Â Blade meant grass-blades and leaf-blades were first, then sword-blades and oar-blades by way of metaphor, but they’ve nearly always been the same word (in other Germanic languages, if not consistently in English, the current use of grass-blade seems to derive from the metaphor going the other direction; grass-blade to sword-blade in Old English, sword-blade to grass-blade in modern English).Â Bloom is from the same root, as is blossom.Â Flower is related, but way back, and the similarity is a bit tougher to see than in the other words I’ve mentioned, unless you’ve got a background in phonology or etymology, in which case you were long since probably too fed up to read this far, and I’m sorry for you.
Clamp is one of my favorites.Â Clamp means clamp, so we can start there.Â A clamshell is a â€œclamp-shell,” a shell that clamps together. Clams clamp.Â Climbing is clamping onto something (sort of, as in both the sense and the etymology, but both are related). Â Clambering is similarly related.Â Cleave is another one in the family, an older English word than the rest of these.Â Clay is from the same root and is sticky stuff (6).Â Glue is related in the same way-back way as flower is to blade.
Now, if you’ve read this far, whatever your credentials, you might wonder what the point of this discussion is.Â Don’t worry, I’m not entirely sure myself.Â Will this information help your writing? Â I’m not sure about that either, about much of anything for that matter, and so I’m at least reasonably consistent. WhatÂ I hope is that I’m helping you engage language, as we used to say in grad school (7).Â I’m hoping that words, these glyphs that we put on paper with dark liquid (or on screens by arranging electrons), these noises that we blow through our neck meat up out of our face holes, become a little more alien by way of familiarity.Â I hope that something in the tangle of words will help you figure out how to arrange some other words we share.Â I’ll talk about it again in a couple of weeks.
2.Â For example, American English makes use of somewhere around 44 types of sounds (or phonemes), though that number doesn’t necessarily include among other things the southern distinction between /wh/ and /w/ (where where is pronounced differently from wear, if you hear what I mean), or the Scottish /x/ sound at the end of (for example) McCullough.Â The Hawaiian language only uses 14 phonemes, which is why it sometimes sounds as though the words all sound the same, but the words also sound alike to you because you are a racist.
3.Â Well, maybe.Â The chaise part is French for chair, and the lounge part in English is longue in French. “Chaise-longueâ€ means â€œlong chair.â€Â But I don’t know if the lounge-chair in English comes from the respelling of chaise-longue or if it was a legitimate thing on its own that influenced that respelling, to phrase that question as badly as possible.
4.Â Picnic has nothing at all to do with the racial slur.Â Stop spreading that folk etymology, damn it.
5.Â I can’t seem to work in a joke about precursor meaning â€œancestors who cussed,â€ so I’ll just make the meta-reference here.
6.Â I had a footnote here about clay, but it was dumb, so I figured I’d expand tangentially on footnote 1, which isn’t as informational as it might be. In discussing his translation of the Divine Comedy, John Ciardi notes that it’s easier to rhyme in Italian than in English.Â The original uses terza rima, tercets where each line rhymes with the other two, but he settled for loose initial and final rhymes in his tercets.Â In Italian, he says, â€œit is only a slight exaggeration to say that everything rhymes with everything else or a variant form of it.â€
7.Â We didn’t say it all the time.Â We only said it in the classes of a couple of professors.Â The phrase annoyed many.