The other day I over-heard someone use one of my favourite four letter words – Junk. What a brilliant word. And economical too, with the alphabet. It first appeared in use around 1480. 1480! So not a modern word at all and seemingly rising in popularity once more, thanks to its coupling with the word Space, making it very modern indeed. But Junk’s a mere youngster compared to the word Foot – first found in use around 900. The derivation of language is fascinating subject and as we know words come and go in rapid succession – bought, borrowed, morphed and compounded into vibrant additions to any language. Here’s a fact that made me smile: the French word for Work – travail – comes from the Latin tripalium, which was a very unpleasant instrument of torture. Who’d have thought?!
So where did four letter words come from? Why four letters? If you need to convey or describe something by just making a sound, a three-lettered ‘Axe’ is just as effective as a four letter ‘Coat’. See what I mean? One sound, but an extra letter. What’s that all about? It’s an accepted fact that writing began long after language so you could say that to understand writing we first have to understand language. But I’m not so sure. The proliferation of written works all through history right up to now, this minute, this blog, by anyone, it seems, who could/can write, is surely a statement that we’re hard-wired to do it? Ah, a subject for discussion I feel!
Idling time away in a trafficjam the other day I played the Four Letter Word game: get from one four letter to word to another by changing only one word at a time, and each subsequent word change must result in a new four letter word. Try it. Go from Work to Bend:
WORK, FORK, FORT, PORT, PERT, PERM, TERM, TEAM, BEAM, BEAD, BEND. I think I cheated though, using the word perm; any hairdresser worth their straighteners will tell you perm is short for Permanent. But I don’t feel qualified in anyway to discuss the history of hairdressing, so we’ll just leave that one for now…
As Cole Porter so observantly noted “Good authors too who once knew better words, now only use four-letter words. Writing prose, anything goes.”