Words Carrying Stories


Courtesy freedigitalphotos.net, “alphabet in the ball” by Vlado.

Recently looked into my old blog again, and found this post on the origins of language: 

Last year I took a trip to St. Mary’s City, the original capital city of Maryland. It’s a great place where re-enactors dress up as 17th century Marylanders, living as they did when St. Mary’s was the hub of activity in colonial Maryland.  One of the main attractions, besides the Indian village and the Maryland Dove, the merchant ship at St. Mary’s dock, was the printer’s house, where the town’s newspaper was printed. The volunteer there showed us how the printer’s letter blocks were set in two cases – capital letters in the upper case, and non-capital letters in the lower case. This is the origin of the words uppercase and lowercase in English. We no longer see the “case” in our mind’s eye, but it was there once. Countless words grew out of physical realities we have long forgotten. We don’t think of newspaper correspondents as writing letters, but in the nineteenth century, that’s exactly what they did. The famous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” came from a letter written to the New York Herald by its correspondent in Africa, Mr. Henry Stanley. His newspaper reports from Central Africa were introduced with the following telegram from the London correspondent in July of 1872: “It is with the deepest emotions of pride and pleasure that I announce the arrival this day of letters from Mr. Stanley, Chief of the Herald Exploring Expedition to Central Africa. I have forwarded the letters by mail.” Sometimes it’s nice to realize how much language tells stories, down into the words themselves.

Well, that last year I referred to is a long time ago now, but it’s funny how much all of these old entries still speak to me. The way words wrap up history and culture inside them has always been a fascination. Letters, too, have histories. For example, the letter z was imported into English from French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and the name “zed” – used in Britain to describe the letter – is thought to come from the Hebrew word for weapon, because the letter shape: ז looks like a weapon. Interesting, isn’t it? 

2 thoughts on “Words Carrying Stories

  1. I love this idea of words carrying story. It reminds me of my Latin Etymology class in the ivy-covered New England preparatory school of my youth. I am also reminded of Simon Winchester’s spectacular “The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary”. I suppose every story is built one word at a time – it is only right that each word has a story to keep it abreast.

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