on writing

Lost in the Gravity of Graves and Gravy

Word choice may not be the most important tool in a writer’s toolbox, but it is gravely serious nonetheless.

I was reading a novel the other day, and the author jarred me out of his story by sticking a “grave expression” on his protagonist’s face while the poor sucker held his dead wife. I imagined how proud that writer must have felt after subtly juxtaposing a solemn expression and a final resting place. “Just the right word!” he probably thought, but to my eye it was a cheap move.  A grave grave, come on!

Within seconds I wasn’t reading anymore, but rather staring out the window and thinking about heavy expressions, serious situations, and holes in the ground–grave, grave, grave. I thought about gravity pushing downward, much as all of those various graves do, and the solemnity of gravitas. Even the heaviness of gravy ran through my mind.

All that weight. Surely these words are all related, I thought, and then I realized that I might be drifting into the land of false etymology. We speak and write English so casually that we assume a greater familiarity with words than we actually possess. That occasionally leads us to assume word origins that aren’t actually true. For example, you may believe that burrito is an old Spanish word for a stuffed tortilla, but it isn’t. That definition didn’t exist prior to the mid-1950s, and it is an American coinage with Spanish roots.

Burrito is not alone: English borrows heavily from other languages. Residents of Hamburg, Germany have been known as Hamburgers since the early 17th century, but it took another 200 years and American verbal ingenuity to turn them into sandwiches. This, of course, led to endless –burger back-formations right around the same time that burrito entered the language. Turkey burger, veggie burger, chicken burger: Seventy years later, we’re still coining new -burger words at a frenetic pace. A quick Google search reveals the existence of the burrito burger, which probably causes much heartburn for the residents of Burritoburg.

Another common back-formation is –gate to mean “scandal,” a usage that didn’t exist prior to the 1972 break-in at Washington D.C.’s Watergate office complex. More recently, the New England Patriots’ saggy balls brought us “Deflategate,” and yes, of course we have experienced at least one “Burgergate,” a choo-choo train of back-formations completely devoid of any meaning yet one that manages to mean exactly what you think it means.

Sometimes English borrows two words from different languages but spells them the same way. We may think that boil and boil are the same word since both involve eruptions, either as pimples or heated liquid (or tempers), but they do not share an origin. Boil as in “pimple” is an Old English word, while boil as in “heat” has a French root. If there’s a point here, it’s that the English language is a mutt, and trying to establish the pedigree of a mutt can only lead to Muttgate.

So are graves really grave? In practice they certainly are, but in terms of the words’ origins not so much. Grave as in “a burial place” has been with us since Old English (graef), while grave as in “seriousness” didn’t enter the language from French until the late 15th century and is rooted in the Latin word gravis. That early usage was specific to injuries, as in “a grave wound,” but by the end of the 16th century the word was being used to describe everything from feelings to personalities to sounds to clothing.

Gravity also entered English from French in the late 15th century, but as a companion to grave–a grave individual possessed gravity, for example. Gravity as in the attractive force that guarantees your ice cream cone will hit the dirty floor didn’t exist prior to the late 17th century. Well, gravity existed, but an English word defining the force did not.

While the English word gravity is borrowed from the French word gravité, that word in turn has as its origin the Latin word gravitas. And while grave, the word of French origin, has meant “seriousness” in English for 500 years, English adopted gravitas directly from Latin in the early 20th century to mean the same thing. Why we needed another gravely serious word is anybody’s guess.

As for gravy: It also comes from French but does not share a root with grave, gravity, or gravitas. The word is likely a misreading of the French word grané, which morphed into gravy. In other words, some careless medieval monk copyist may have accidentally coined the English word for our favorite turkey condiment. (Incidentally turkeys have no more to do with Turkey than American Indians have to do with India.)

None of this really matters in the grand scheme of things. English may have incredibly complex origins, but with exception maybe to Taco Bell we all know what a burrito is. We know that a portobello mushroom burger is not a resident of Portabellomushroomburg, and that a grave is serious business. But it should matter to you if you are a writer. If your word choice yanks the reader out of your story and into an etymological reverie then you have done both your story and your reader a grave disservice, and that can only lead to one thing.


Categories: on writing

7 replies »

  1. It’s no different than watching a film in a theater or a show on the tele. A bad edit, bad dialogue, horrible cue, continuity error, over the top performance, and as you say bad word choices, anything that jolts one out of the world created by the story pulls me out of the experience and has me noticing the experience. Sometimes a storyteller just tries too hard to impress and the gravy is ruined, lumpy and all. Stir carefully.

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  2. I am endlessly fascinated by the English language and its combinations and permutations. As a student, I had the impression that the language was static and fixed. You could look up a word in the dictionary and know that it has always meant that definition. In reality, English is remarkably flexible. From year to year, hundreds of words are added or changed or expanded. My favorite example is “aggravate.” When I was in high school, its sole meaning was “to intensify,” although in popular usage it was often used to mean “to irritate.” Now “irritate” is perfectly acceptable. I must admit, though, that to my elderly and inflexible mind, it will always aggravate my aggravation at its misuse.

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    • That’s what makes the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) such an invaluable resource. One can learn not only a word’s current meaning, but its definitions throughout its entire history as an English word.

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  3. I read Stephen Kings book “On Writing” a wonderful combination of memoir and how-to. He devoted much time to the adverb, and explained that if you have to add an adverb to your characters dialogue, you have not given us the scene, and are wimping out using an adverb.
    I never forgot it, and although I don’t write much past a comment like this, it stuck with me and god help the poor writers I read. If there is one too many adverbs, I am out of the story and probably picking up King’s book to re-read.

    Studying Spanish for a few years has been a fascinating look into word origins, and cognates, real and false. Every one of my Spanish tutorials gives a lot of time to cognates, calling them “friends” and “false friends.” And they can wreck havoc with learning, but ya gotta learn them, and not get lulled into thinking “asistir” means “assist”…..it means “to attend.” Once I get past my irritation at false cognates, I have to admit that I am grateful for the lessons that help me not make an ass of myself.

    “I, too, can enjoy a lazy hour with the Oxford English Dictionary or any book on word history because I realize how much I love reading about words and language.”

    She said happily. He nodded in cheerful agreement. Together they ran quickly to the library, poring carefully over the hundreds of titles. The End.

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