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Chapter XI. The History Of Business Words

§ 51. The study of the history of business words is not very practical, in the immediate sense of the word. Take the word "business" itself. We all know what it means to-day, and it is chiefly a matter of curiosity to reflect that it comes from the word "busy," whereas the word "school" (from the Greek word The History Of Business Words 1 originally meant "leisure." To be sure, a seller of tobacco might find it of practical value to tell some customer - some customer of a bookish turn of mind - that "latakia" is the same word as "Laodicea," the goods taking their name from a famous shipping port which happens to be mentioned rather emphatically in the Bible (Rev. 3:16),

But in general a knowledge of the history of such words does not bring immediate cash returns or advance us in our strenuous ambitions. If anything, it tends rather toward mental recreation. It gives us a wider outlook upon the past. It puts a touch of romance upon terms which we have to use so constantly that they grow humdrum. It makes us not more successful but more intelligent. It shows us how vast were the movements of history which brought about our present business condition. If it does this, it sends us back to work in a fresher state of mind, and so perhaps in the long run it proves worth while. The operative who knows something of the history of the machine that he tends is a better workman than the dull slave who goes through the motions not knowing why. And the business man who has acquired a dictionary habit is a better and bigger man for so doing.

There are certainly more than a quarter of a million words in English, perhaps nearly half a million, and the language is daily receiving new accessions from the sciences. Various great movements of history have contributed to make our language the richest in the world.

§52. The British Isles were originally inhabited by the Celts. These people were driven back from England proper into the mountains of Scotland and Wales, and across the Irish channel into Ireland. The first invaders were the Romans under Julius Caesar, and they remained in England for five hundred years. The Roman walled-camps became the nuclei of the great English cities. The word for camp was castra, and it survives in "Chester," "Lancaster," "Manchester/' etc. A Roman settlement was a colonia, or colony. In such a word as "Lincoln*' you can see an old Celtic word plus this Roman word. Lin is Celtic for pool, so that "Lincoln" means pool-settlement, which is about the equivalent of such a word as Brookville.

Some of our business words are inherited from the Celts or their Irish, Welsh, or Scotch descendants. Bargain and whiskey are such words. Whiskey is Celtic uisgebeatha, Scotch usquebaugh, and means "water of life," like the French eau de vie. The goddess of history is a sarcastic creature. She actually means water of death, eau de mort, but she keeps the gay old Celtic word.

The word "Welsh" means "strangers," and there is another piece of irony. In the fifth century the Angles and Saxons crossed over to England from Northern Germany, and proceeded to complete the conquest of the Celts. It was they who, after driving the Welsh away from their original haunts, had the assurance to call them strangers.

The language brought over by the Teutonic invaders is called Anglo-Saxon. It was a rough low-German tongue ("low" refers to the lowlands), and was even more fully inflected than German or Dutch is to-day. Through various influences the inflections have almost entirely dropped off. We change man to men to show the plural, but we do not add syllables to man to show different relations in the singular. We say instead, of a man, to a man, for a man, etc. Business English should be glad of this gradual simplification of words. Speaking of glad, our ancestors used nine forms of that adjective: glad, gladu, glades, gladre, gladum, gladne, glade, glada, gladra. Father was glad, and mother was gladu, and the whole family were glade. Nowadays we are all merely glad,

Anglo-Saxon became in time the language of the island, and as such it has furnished us with our simplest and strongest words. Our home associations cluster around these plain old words, such as father, mother, friends. Such Anglo-Saxon terms as joy, sorrow, love, hate, express our strongest feelings, and we do not know how to dissociate the feeling from the name. Others express our elementary acts - eat, drink, hunger, starve, stand, sit, walk, run, live, die. They are the first words that we learn in childhood, and the last that we forget in old age.

Therefore the use of Anglo-Saxon words is inevitably forcible, as we have seen in our second chapter. They are full of strong associations. A word like "motherly" is more powerful than a word like" maternal." " Bruise" means more than" contusion," though it denotes the same thing. As boys we knew by painful experience what bruises were long before we knew what contusions were.

Such facts are not without practical bearing on business English. In business we get better results with Saxon words than with Latin words, provided that the Saxon words are really to be had for the given situation. We have no Saxon word for automobile, because our forefathers did not have the thing itself. But even here the instinct for old English words shows itself. In slang the automobile appears as the" buzz-wagon," and there is a growing tendency in dignified speech to refer to it as merely the "car." Of this matter and similar ones we shall have occasion to speak again in later chapters.

Our numerals, up to a million, have Saxon names. Our way of writing them in figures is of Arabic origin. The system of Arabic numerals is of tremendous importance to business. Try to multiply by Boman numerals, and you will quickly see how vast is the debt of modern business to the Saracen invaders whom Charles Martel drove back from Europe.


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