Literally Blog Tour – The language of science: new words for new ideas by Patrick Skipworth

Publication Date: 5 May 2020

The Blurb

Did you know that English words come from all over the world and that their meanings have changed along their journey? Our word ‘zero’ comes from the Arabic word for empty space. ‘Companion’ is from the Latin for with bread.

With simple descriptions and dazzling, evocative and witty illustrations, this is a fascinating introduction to the rich history and cultural diversity of our language. The perfect book for budding linguists aged 7 – 11 to learn about the origins and meanings of the English language

Words included: orchestra (Japanese); zero (Arabic); guru (Sanskrit); ukulele (Hawaiian); jaguar (Tupi); royalty (Norman French); companion (Latin); kookaburra (Wradjuri); worm (Old English); mummy (Persian); caribou (Algonquin); safari (Swahili).

Literally cover

The Review

A feast for the mind, Literally is a mesmerising journey around the world, old and new simultaneously, as we discover the origins of words and how their meanings have changed over time.

The stunning illustrations cleverly combine both original and current meanings of each word, capturing where the word originated from. Who knew that Caribou originally meant snow shoveller in  Mi’kmaq (an indigenous language of eastern Canada)? And when you see them nosing through the snow for food, their name makes perfect sense!

The linguistic diversity through the words chosen show just how far and wide the language we use has been influenced by the rest of the world.

The map at the end shows in fascinating detail the language families spoken around the world, and the extent of their spread, or demise, is clear to see.

A fabulous non-fiction browser that is sure to ignite the budding etymologist in anyone who reads it.

The Guest Post

I’m delighted to welcome Patrick to the blog today talking about the language of science…

Language Safari part 2: The language of science: new words for new ideas

by Patrick Skipworth

In the guest posts on the LITERALLY Blog tour I’ll be taking a closer look at three familiar areas of English vocabulary to reveal some of the surprises hidden in our words.

Scientific jargon forms some of the most baffling vocabulary in our language, and these words not only tell fascinating stories but also help us to understand the theories behind them. Lots of scientific words come from the dead languages Latin and ancient Greek, but often these words were given their current meanings long after these languages were commonly spoken. The ancient Greeks, for example, did not know how to harness electricity, although they certainly were aware of its awesome power. They saw lightning as a weapon wielded by Zeus. Despite not understanding the science, the word electricity comes from the ancient Greek word elektron, which means ‘amber’. So why choose this word? This golden stone was studied by some of the first scientists working with electricity, such as Francis Bacon, who recognised its electromagnetic properties. Soon, the ancient Greek word made its way into many facets of the new science.

Using dead languages to discuss cutting-edge science might seem strange, but for a while it allowed scientists across Europe to share research more easily, ensuring that meanings remained mostly static over time and across borders. Today, these words and conventions have entered everyday vocabulary across the globe. One of the most notorious examples has to be dinosaur, which means ‘terrible lizard’ in ancient Greek. We now know that dinosaurs aren’t lizards (in fact, birds are a type of dinosaur), but the name has become so ingrained that it has evolved into everyday use to mean something obsolete and old-fashioned. One of my favourite ancient words revived by science is syzygy (pronounced si-zi-dji, from ancient Greek suzugos meaning joined together). Astronomers will know this word to mean the rare moments when three bodies in space are arranged in a straight line, such as during a solar or lunar eclipse. Science has helped to give these ancient languages new life.

Another great place to look for stories in scientific language is Arabic. So many of our fundamental scientific words come from this language. Words such as alchemy (and subsequently chemistry, from Arabic al-kimiya, with roots stretching further back to Egypt) and alkali (from Arabic al-qali) show their Arabic origins in the prefix al-, meaning ‘the’. These words reveal some of the history of scientific discovery and the sharing of new knowledge. They point us to a period in the early Middle Ages where the centres of discoveries were in the Arabic-speaking world, from Baghdad in the Middle East to Córdoba in Andalusia (from Arabic al-Andalus, now part of Spain). Astronomers will also be familiar with plenty of Arabic. Stargazing was an important pursuit in the middle ages and Arab scholars gave us many of the names we commonly use for stars, including Betelgeuse, Rigel and Vega. So whenever you’re working on a science project, remember that the words you use hide a story that connects tomorrow’s inventors to a long history of incredible discoveries.

Wow, that is a mind-blowing lesson in etymology in the scientific world, and has made me think that I probably should have paid more attention in Latin!

Huge thanks to What On Earth Books for sending me a copy and for inviting me to take part in the Blog Tour. Do make sure you check out all of the other stops!

Literally blog tour banner copy

LITERALLY: Amazing words and Where They Come From by Patrick Skipworth, illustrated by Nicholas Stevenson (£11.99, What on Earth Books)


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