Look After Your Mind – Words, Words, Mere Words

Look after your mind

So said Troilus to Pandarus in Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’ (Act Five, Scene Three). A sentiment shared by the philosopher Alan Watts who called words ‘puffs of air’. On the other hand, the America Christian preacher Charles Capps has said that words are the most powerful thing in the universe.

While I tend not to agree with that extreme statement, there’s no doubt that words do carry great potential power to influence us.


The word ‘word’ itself comes from the Old English ‘to say’, arising out of Proto-Germanic wurda, ‘to speak’. While the word ‘language’ comes from the Latin ‘lingua’, for tongue.

The study of where words come from and how their meanings can change over time is known as etymology. Originating in the Greek word for ‘true’ interestingly and sometimes ironically enough.

Checking out word origins has become something of an obsession with me. People talk and write to each other and, while misunderstandings can occur, generally we can make sense of what’s being said without knowing the roots of any of the words.

My interest in etymology began when I was running a writing workshop in a school. It so happened that the school was being inspected by Ofsted that day. One of the inspectors was sitting in on the session. That didn’t faze me because I wasn’t ‘in the system’, but the young class teacher was very nervous. The notes he held were shaking as he introduced me.

Empowering Learning

Towards the end of the session he announced that I’d have to stop now because we had to do the plenary. One of the children asked where that word came from and it embarrassed me that I didn’t know. Though neither did the teacher or the inspector as it happened. It turns out that the word comes from Latin meaning ‘complete’; a rounding-off of the lesson.

The Australian author Don Watson in his amusing book ‘Gobbledygook: how. clichés, sludge and management-speak are strangling our public language’ advises that ‘when words are suspicious, go after them… Go after the meaning of the words’.

Encouraging children to ask ‘what exactly do you mean by that?’ or ‘what does that word mean?’ gives them a useful tool to improve their learning.

Researching word origins can also help to clarify abstract ideas. The branch of mathematics called ‘calculus’. For example (also related to calculate), traces back to the Latin for pebble and refers to an old method of counting. Similarly, tally comes from the Latin ‘talea’ meaning to cut – tallies were kept by making cuts in lengths of wood. Children’s creative thinking and reasoning can also be challenged. The word ‘mother’ gives rise to matter, measure and metre – but what’s the connection?

The Bee Gees famously sang ‘It’s only words, and words are all I have…’ But approached in the right way, our ability to wield words can bring many benefits and advantages.

Steve Bowkett