Are you a verbivore?

According to Richard Lederer, “carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words.” For all you verbivores out there, he has a website you just have to check out. Besides excerpts from his own writing, it also has a page of links to other verbiverous websites.

I don’t know I can get a brainache from devouring too many words at a time (the way I can get a stomachache from eating to much), but I’m sure I can enjoy them more in smaller portions. So I limited myself, this evening, to reading through a page on “curious word origins” (one of the linked sites).

Did you know that the word orange comes from a Sanskit phrase meaning “fatal indigestion for elephants”? Or that an addict was originally a slave given to a Roman soldier, as a reward for his performance in battle? Next time you hail a cab, remember that “cab” was an old Italian word for “goat.” When you flex your muscles, think of little mice running beneath your skin.

What I actually had started out looking for was information on the etymology of homophones. How did we end up with so many ways to spell the same sounds? I know some of the answer, but I was looking for a more thorough discussion of the subject. And I might find it, by the time I finish exploring this website and all the links.

And in case you’re wondering what got me interested in that question, it started this morning when I was updating my Tranagrams post. (Yes, I’m still playing it, all by myself, and enjoying it.) I used the word CARET (along with CATER, TRACE, CRATE, and REACT), and wanted to double-check my spelling. CARET and CARAT are both common words in crossword puzzles, and I always have trouble remembering which is which. (The fact that one has an alternate spelling, starting with a K, doesn’t help, because I forget whether it’s KARET or KARAT.)

caret is that upside-down V that you use to show that something has to be inserted in a line of text. (Well, maybe you don’t use it, but I do, and I know my sister does because she’s a proofreader.) I had never thought about where the word came from, but I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind I connected with with its homophones, carat and carrot. After all, a carrot is a very long skinny V, and while carat has to do with the weight of a gem rather than its facets, when I think of carat I think of a cut gem with all its carefully cut angles.

Of course CARET has nothing to do with either of those. It comes from the Latin, meaning “there is lacking,” (caret is the 3rd pers. sing. of carere “to lack”). Which makes perfect sense to me, since Spanish has a similar verb, carecer, which I always thought was a very handy word to use. (We can speak of lacking things in English, but most of the time we’re more likely to speak of not having them.)

If you’re not a verbivore, that may not sound intersting enough to spend time poking around the internet to find more examples of homophones and their etymology. But I am very much the verbivore, and I plan to have some very satisfying snacks – perhaps even some feasts – as I explore this site and its links.

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One Response to Are you a verbivore?

  1. Peter L says:

    Verbivore- I like it! I love words and try to use English big words in teaching Spanish, hoping that it will at least increase my students’ knowledge of their own language.

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