It’s all in the Word

GenealogyI subscribe to a word-of-the-day, so a new or not-so-new word drops in my inbox to kick-start my morning. It pumps up my vocabulary and, at times, clarifies a word I thought I knew well. Take for example the word foy. It’s fairly plain, very simple. Who would have known it was a bon voyage party, a celebration, a parting gift or a farewell toast? The next time a friend heads out for a tropical vacation, you can send them off with a lovely foy.

This week, a familiar word – genealogy – popped into my inbox. It’s quite simple though I know some have trouble spelling it correctly. I didn’t know why that was so until I read the word’s history, it’s etymology.

Genealogy is a family history. It’s “the study or creation of family histories from historical documents”. We can expand on that because interviews with family members and neighbours also contribute to family histories. It’s impossible to have everything supported by documents. For example, you’ll have to trust your mother when she tells you your sister’s birthday even though she has no birth certificate to prove it . . . well, unless there is a very good reason to doubt the information.

Genealogy can also be explained as an account of descent from ancestors. Notice there is not preference to which surname is documented. A select few may narrow that window to say genealogy is the study of the male surname, but the word genealogy holds no preference.

My Good Word definition explains why some individuals are tempted spell this word with an O (geneology) instead of an A (genealogy). The pronunciation is responsible. Many of us spell by sound, and we expect the words to match the sounds coming out of our mouths. That’s a wee bit misleading because there are many dialects in Atlantic Canada and around the world. For example, my Scottish penpal wrote to say if he spelt the way he spoke, he’d write: “Nae matter where yi go yi will iye meet a friendly face aye a Scotsman.” Although he says the words deafferently, he spells them the same as I do.

“US dictionaries like American Heritage and Merriam-Webster offer the O-variant as a possible pronunciation.” This could be contributing to the misspelling.

Words are so intriguing, I don’t like to stop at the meaning; there is so much more to learn.

The ancient Greeks are responsible for breathing life into genealogy – genealogia to them – and for the use of the A instead of the O in the spelling. Latin borrowed this verbatim. The French put their twist on it: généalogie. The English took it from there.

The Greek word genea meant family, clan. To this, they added logos which meant reckoning, wisdom and the noun suffix –ia. One might say that a genealogist is someone who is wise about their clan and who has come to reckon with their family.

If you’re interested in broadening your vocabulary, visit The alphaDictionary.com and sign up for a word-a-day. It’s free!

Diane Lynn Tibert is a freelance writer based in central Nova Scotia. She is the alter-ego of Diane Lynn McGyver, author of the short story The Man Who Reads Obituaries.

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