Visualization of the Week: The origins of English

The etymology of the words in select articles and classic books.

Mike Kinde, writer for the site Ideas Illustrated, has created a project that visualizes the etymology of the English words used in various passages — a sports article, a medical article, a United Nations document, Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

“Using Douglas Harper’s online dictionary of etymology, I paired up words from various passages I found online with entries in the dictionary. For each word, I pulled out the first listed language of origin and then reconstructed the text with some additional HTML infrastructure. The HTML would allow me to associate each word (or word fragment) with a color, title, and hyperlink to a definition.”

Below is the passage from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” which Kinde says he selected because he assumed it would have an interesting mixture of American and British English words. He found that while 73% of the word fragments are Old English, Twain included words from more than a dozen different sources just in this excerpt alone:

etymology.jpg
Visit the site to hover over the words in the passage to see their origins and definitions. Kinde’s blog post also contains interesting etymological findings from other types of literature.

Kinde notes he’s not an etymologist and writes:

“I definitely suggest digging in to the full etymology site to explore the full history of each word. I have probably made plenty of translation mistakes as I developed my paragraphs, but I certainly had fun.” [Link added.]

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  • Mike

    This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about the English language:

    "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and
    rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." –James D. Nicoll