Now that most of my jam-making is over for the year, my latest obsession is the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive record of the English language. Etymology fans love it because it brings the history of a particular word and writers love it because it gives you the first known instance of that word in written English. This makes it a virtual treasure trove of inspiration. We are fortunate enough to own a hard copy but it is also available online.
Last week, we made cider from our own apples, so of course, I was curious about the origin of the word apple. According to the OED, the early form of the word for a round fruit from a tree of the genus Malus has roots in the Old Frisian appel, Middle Dutch appel, and many more, including Old Saxon appul and even Russian, jabloko.
The word (and its countless spellings) shows up in Old English and Middle English documents many times, including a 1387 reference in Piers Plowman, an allegorical narrative poem by William Langland: “I prayed pieres to pulle adown an apple.”
Of course, one word leads to another, so then we looked up cider. This word is as old as apple (and has as many variations in spelling) and refers to a fermented beverage that came from other fruits as well as apples. It originates from Old French sidre (now cidre) and represents the late Latin sicera (medieval Latin cisara , cisera ). There are Greek and Hebrew equivalents, and it even appeared in the Vulgate, a late 4th century Latin translation of the Bible. It is mentioned in a 1464 document on the household: “He hathe ȝeven me a tone of syder.”
So how can you use etymology in your own writing? It’s obviously inspired this blog entry, but I regularly turn to it for poetry. As an example from a pro, check out how Nicole Cooley riffs on the word nostalgia in her poem Mad Money.