Why I Love Language

From the “exordium,” or introduction, to my book A Garden of Words.


Exordium is a Latin word that was adopted into English to mean “the introduction to a written work.” Originally, however, exordium indicated “the beginning of a web” or the “threading of a loom.” In a sense, that’s what this book is all about: It begins to weave a web of words and reveals the linguistic threads that link a host of seemingly unrelated words and languages.

This book had its beginnings a dozen years ago, when I was struggling through introductory college Greek. Classical languages are notoriously difficult to master, in part because these so-called “dead” languages don’t afford the chance to practice rudimentary conversations — Hello, How are you?, What’s your name? — and other everyday exchanges that provide a feel for the spoken language. Instead, the first chapter of an ancient Greek or Latin textbook introduces students to such terms as the Greek words for “metaphor” and “bowstring,” or the Latin word for “treachery” — not exactly the stuff of everyday conversation. In addition, anyone who wants to learn a classical language faces formidable lists of noun declensions and seemingly endless charts of verb forms.

It all seemed so arbitrary, so artificial, so far removed from real life. Who, I wondered, had decreed that a noun should have so many different endings, depending on its use in a sentence? How did the ancients ever come to decide that a Greek verb should have three voices, four finite moods, seven tenses, three numbers, six principal parts — and why? How, for that matter, did any ancient Greek kid ever learn to carry on a conversation at all? The old expression “It’s Greek to me” took on a new and painful meaning, and I finally decided to drop the course and try again the following year.

In the meantime, I wrote to the university in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, to ask whether some graduate student there might tutor me in Greek over the summer. I received a letter back — in not entirely perfect English — from someone who said he’d be glad to help. Leonard Latkovski, Sr., was a retired professor of classics who had taught for many years at Louisville’s Bellarmine College.

The Professor

He began his teaching career in his native Latvia at the University of Riga. In 1944 he and his young family fled to Germany, just hours ahead of the advancing Russian Army. Eventually they emigrated to the United States. Although officially retired, Professor Latkovski regularly worked as a freelance translator in several languages, taught Latin in a Catholic elementary school, and tutored adults in the evenings. He agreed to teach me Greek on Monday nights.

The ritual that began our first tutorial would be repeated in all our subsequent meetings. A portly, gracious man, Professor Latkovski greeted me in modern Greek and kissed both my cheeks. With a grand gesture, he motioned for me to be seated, then disappeared into the kitchen. He returned after a moment with two cups of strong coffee. He left again, returning this time with a loaf of fresh homemade bread. In a heavily accented kind of growl he said, “Recipe from old country. I baked just for you.” He left and came back a third time with a plate of butter. “Cow cheese,” he said, and went on to explain that English butter comes from the ancient Greek words bous, or “cow,” and turos, “cheese” — making butter a linguistic relative of such words as bovine, beef, bucolic, and bulimia, or literally, “ox-hunger.”

At last the professor settled into a chair and announced, “Now we can study.” I had in hand my elementary Greek textbook, full of dreary drills, charts, and written exercises. I was hoping the professor would look over my written work, correct my mistakes, and quiz me on noun forms. The professor tried halfheartedly to oblige, but he was clearly restless. More than once he frowned, shook his head, and muttered, “Language is not arbitrary. There is a reason for it all. Is not arbitrary!” As the lesson wore on, the professor repeatedly insisted on digressing from the exercises to talk about words in other languages. I left, quite frankly, disappointed.

The following week the professor announced that we wouldn’t need my textbook any more. Instead he handed me a copy of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. “We will read this,” he said, with a finality that let me know it was useless to argue. The professor read aloud the first few lines in Greek and translated them into English. Then he sifted through them again, word by word, pointing out subtleties of meaning and linguistic connections between the Greek words and those from other languages.

One of the first words he chose was the name of the title character, Oedipus — or as the professor habitually referred to him, “The Oedipus.”

“The name Oedipus means ‘swollen foot.’ When ‘The Oedipus’ was a baby, he was left in the woods to die, so that he would not fulfill the oracle’s prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. His ankles were pierced and fastened together, as was the custom in those days. The baby survived, you remember — a shepherd rescued him — and because of his swollen feet he was called ‘Oedipus’.

“You have in English, do you not, the word edema, yes? Is some sort of medical term that has to do with swelling, yes? It comes from Greek oidein, which means ‘to swell.’ Is also the source of the name ‘Oedipus.’”

I started to say something, but he held up a hand. “And that’s not all yet. The rest of his name is from the Greek for ‘foot’, pous. You have it in the word octopus, an animal with ‘eight feet’. The genitive form of Greek pous, which is podos, is in such English words as podiatrist, or ‘foot doctor’.”

The word podiatrist reminded him of something else: “The Greek word for ‘doctor,’ you see, is iatros — as in the psychiatrist who doctors the psyche or ‘soul.’ You have in English, do you not, the adjective iatrogenic? It describes an illness that was generated by the iatros, or ‘doctor.’” The professor smiled.

“And that’s not all yet. From the Indo-European root of Greek pous comes the Latin word for ‘foot,’ pes, and its stem pedis, as in pedestrian, pedestal, and sequipedalian. Is wonderful word, sesquipedalian. Literally it means ‘a foot and a half long,’ so a word that is sesquipedalian is just a really big one! Is terrific word!”

By now the professor could hardly contain his merriment. “And that’s still not all yet. In Sanskrit is same thing: The Sanskrit word for ‘foot’ is padas, like Greek podos and Latin pedis. And Sanskrit has a wonderful word for ‘tree,’ padapa. You know what means padapa? The one that ‘drinks with its foot.’ Is fantastic language, Sanskrit. Very poetic! And that’s still not all yet. In Latvian and Lithuanian …”

As we made our way through the opening lines of Oedipus, nearly every word set the professor off on some etymological romp — dizzying excursions across the boundaries of time, culture, language. Three hours flew by as he discoursed on a vast array of subjects, from ancient botany to modern medicine, folklore to mathematics, history to psychology, alchemy to the periodic table of the elements. By the time I left that evening, carrying another loaf of his homemade bread under my arm, my mind was reeling from the sheer amount and scope of information we’d covered. I couldn’t wait to see if the amazing things he told me were substantiated in standard reference works. (Indeed, they nearly always were. Later, for example, I found not only the picturesque Sanskrit word for “tree,” padapa, or “the one drinking with its foot,” but also the intriguing term padapapogata, which means “abiding under a tree while expecting death.”)

At that rate, of course, it took us quite a while to work our way through Oedipus the King — seven years, in fact. But what a journey! I began to grasp language with an understanding that charts of declensions and lists of verb forms could never supply. I came to see the common linguistic ancestors that link words in a surprisingly large number of languages — and to realize that, as the professor had insisted, those words and their various grammatical forms were anything but arbitrary.

During the next twelve years, I completed college (taking as many Greek courses as possible), went on to work as a newspaper reporter, and later studied Greek in graduate school. I also continued to meet regularly with Professor Latkovski. Sometimes emergency phone calls interrupted our lessons: A Polish woman who spoke no English was in labor at a nearby hospital. A Romanian family who had just moved to the area was seeking an interpreter. A Turkish woman who had arrived in Louisville for surgery needed a translator. Professor Latkovski was the one to call.

Over the years, I sometimes asked the professor how many languages he spoke; he invariably dismissed the question with a chuckle and a shrug, adding in all seriousness, “There are many languages I do not know.” He was far more interested in how much more there was to learn, always eager for someone to show him a new word. He never did tell me how many languages he knew, although his university colleagues said that he was perfectly comfortable in at least twelve of them, and the library in his home contained dictionaries and lexicons in a total of thirty languages.

In the summer of 1991, as I was completing the final draft of this book and continuing my weekly studies with the professor, he suddenly fell ill. A few days later I awoke with an overwhelming feeling that somewhere a library was burning. A short time later, Professor Latkovski died, just a few weeks before his eighty-sixth birthday. This book is an effort to capture some of the spirit and substance of what he taught me.


Approximately half the world’s population speaks languages that arose from a common ancestor. This “mother tongue” was spoken by tribes that eventually spread throughout Europe, to Iceland and Ireland in the west, and eastward to India and what is now part of Chinese Turkestan. Using the study of comparative linguistics, scholars have reconstructed some two thousand fundamental roots that represent this mother tongue, which is known as Indo-European. By analyzing remnants of these roots in various ancient and modern tongues, they have discovered links between English and such diverse languages as Russian, Persian, Danish, Polish, Hindi, Latvian, Spanish, German, Greek, and Sanskrit, as well as those of the ancient Hittites and Tocharians. (A small but growing number of linguists subscribe to the idea that Indo-European itself may be only one branch of a far older tongue, which they call Nostratic, from Latin noster “our.” Nostratic, according to this revolutionary idea, is the source of every language in the world. This intriguing hypothesis remains highly controversial.)

Not a word of Indo-European was ever written down, so how do we know that it, or something like it, existed? The answer is the strikingly consistent correspondence between various features of both classical and modern languages. Among the first to point out such similarities was the English jurist and amateur linguist Sir William Jones, who outlined this idea in his 1786 speech to the Asiatick Society of Calcutta — a speech now excerpted in almost every introduction to books about word origins:

… [T]he Sanskrit language, whatever may be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong that no philologer could examine all the three without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.

These similarities are exactly the kind Professor Latkovski meant when he compared the words for “foot” — Greek pous, Latin pes, Sanskrit padas, and their offspring — all of which descend from that “common source,” the Indo-European root now reconstructed as PED-1. Consider also the Indo-European root for “three,” TREI-:This gave rise to English three, Spanish tres, French trois, Swedish tre, Lithuanian trys, Albanian tre, Bengali tri, Russian tri, Polish trzy, Greek treis, Welsh tri, and so on. In German this root became drei, and in Dutch, drie, reflecting a correspondence between d and t sounds in various languages that we’ll see repeatedly in this book. (This correspondence of consonants is also reflected in English two and its various cognates in other languages, such as Spanish dos and French deux, as well as the kindred English word duo.) Another such correspondence often occurs with the letters l and r. For example, the Greek word polis or “city” — as in metropolis, literally “mother city” — arose from the same Indo-European root that produced Sanskrit pur, or “city,” now part of the name Singapore, or literally, “the lion city.”

These types of correspondences among the descendants of Indo-European have enabled scholars to open a window on a new and fascinating means of understanding human thought.

The etymological histories of flower names in this book provide an excuse for talking about the book’s real subject: language itself. Just as the first few lines of Oedipus provided a starting point for Professor Latkovski, each flower-name prompts etymological excursions in many surprising directions. A look at the dovelike columbine leads to a consideration of the many animals named for their color, including the opossum, the bear, and perhaps the penguin. The gladiolus inspires a discussion of various types of weaponry, and the surprising connections between algebra and bone-setting, as well as between manicotti and manure. The misunderstood lupine flower prompts a look at a number of tales about wolves and the faint etymological connection between a “wolf-word” and a tuxedo.

In fact, these chapters encompass much more than language — they’re about history, culture, science, philosophy, literature, and myth. Like the professor’s tutorials, each chapter is packed with wide-ranging information. Above all, this book is meant to raise as many questions as it answers — all the better to send you off on wild and wonder-filled etymological romps of your own.

— Martha Barnette, © 1992, Times Books