Word Relics


Today’s word of the day is fortnight. When I first heard this word as a kid, I immediately concluded it had something to do with forts and battlements, some length of time during which soldiers of kings did something or other. Then, too, when I was about four, I thought the word nightmare referred to white female horses running in the dark. Not such a bad image, is it? 🙂

A while ago, I walked through my town center taking my dog for his morning walk. We met up with a casual acquaintance, an octogenarian whom we regularly encountered on our walks, and who enjoyed petting my dog. That morning, this gentleman stopped in front of a stone structure filled with flowers (it was summertime) and pointed it out to me. I had noticed it many times on my walks over the years, an attractive bit of masonry to pretty up the town with flowers planted and maintained by local gardening groups. All true. But, my older friend said it was originally a water trough for horses, and when he was a kid, he remembered the milk wagons and coal wagons — still horse-drawn then — stopping there to let the animals have a drink. I suddenly saw the ‘stone flower planter’ in a new light — I could now perceive the original function of the stonework quite easily, and how it handily formed a deep container in which to plant flowers, now that horses no longer needed to stop there on hot days for water.

It’s often a similar experience to seeing the horse trough, when you look at the etymology, the earlier senses and constructions of words in common use today. We take their structures for granted, taking the current meaning at face value. When you stop and wonder, however, why a word contains the combined parts it has, e.g., fortnight, there is often an interesting story there. Words carry their histories with them through the passage of time, not unlike artifacts around us that at one time served one purpose, then a different one. Understanding the word’s story can often make its form seem less arbitrary, one can appreciate how it conformed to patterns and principles now buried beneath new paradigms and rules.

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