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zenele's avatar

The etymology of the word is (to me) quite fascinating; we sometimes take for granted how they've come about, beyond their definitions. Do you like words and languages, or is it simply a tool, like math?

Asked by zenele (8242points) August 17th, 2010

I subscribe to something called and I highly recommend this little website and email newsletter. For those who are learning English, or are simply curious, it has an audio feature as well – which is wonderful – as the author reads aloud a different word’s etymology almost daily.

Here’s what prompted this Q:


I got the idea for this word of the day from reading more about the Oxford English Corpus, that dictionary maker’s tool said to have a billion words in its database.

One of the things that lexicographers have been able to do, that they weren’t able to do before, is give words more flavor along with their meaning. I don’t have access to the Oxford English Corpus so I don’t know exactly what it would make of “proclivity” but here’s what I did.

Traditional dictionaries include a definition for a word. In the case of “proclivity” it might run something along the lines of “an inclination or predisposition toward something.” That’s actually from Merriam Webster. But there is a tone to proclivity too. I was listening to the radio where they were talking about a natural history exhibit on the mating habits of wild animals. The word proclivity came up in the conversation more than once. The tone was one of titillation. I thought…is there a kind of cheeky aspect to the word proclivity? Something not exactly disapproved of, but not exactly respectable either?

The Oxford English Corpus would have let me look at numerous contexts of the word to tease out whether this was the case. Since I don’t have the Corpus I had to settle for Google. I actually used the search engines within newspapers like the LA Times and The New York Times. Sure enough proclivities came associated with not buying new underwear, mincing around in bathing suits—sun tanning while visible from the street, cross dressing, overspending and more. So even if the dictionary tells you that proclivity means a predisposition, it doesn’t tell you that most people use proclivity when talking with light disapproval…or is that winking approval? The etymology of the word proclivity is ironically appropriate for this flavor of usage. The word comes from Latin and is related to “incline,” where cl?vus means slope. So that proclivity holds a figurative etymology of “going forward down a slope.” And in practice our proclivities are things we allow ourselves, like a ball rolling down its natural course.

So jellies; like words much?

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29 Answers

ETpro's avatar

Great question! I loved your exposition of proclivity.

Yes, I do have a proclivity for exploring words in their subtle meaning. I wish I had understood the power of knowing words in great depth when I was still in school and had more time to learn about them.

That power didn’t really dawn on me till I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and discovered that Tolkien was a dedicated student of derivations and proto-Indo-European roots. He was able to craft such a realistic seeming world because he drew upon cultural heritage that all of us unwittingly have been shaped by.

Haleth's avatar

“Proclivity” is kind of a naughty word! Almost every time I see that word, someone has a “proclivity” for something sexual and a little perverse.

I haven’t looked into etymology as deeply as you have, but I love seeing a familiar word used in an interesting new context, or learning more about the word from its use in context. Another thing that interests me is how words in different languages can have the same root, but the pronunciation or usage evolves over time.

@ETpro Tolkien’s thoroughness and depth is amazing. He created all that epic mythology and all those languages, and the awesome part is that Lord of the Rings itself is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m a huge Tolkien nerd.

ipso's avatar


Which led to this fine short list of oddities.

zenele's avatar

Great answers @ETpro and @Haleth – thanks!

Edit: @ipso Nice site but lotsa pop-ups. Just saying. Try this one, too:

ipso's avatar

Really? I have pop-ups blocked, so never notice such things. Sorry!

YARNLADY's avatar

Really, it doesn’t mean anything in the long run,. because every person has their own personal interpretation and there is no way we can know that it means to each without a period of experience with them.

zenele's avatar

@ipso No problem – I have to adjust my settings I guess. They usually catch em all – this one had two toughies – you know the one that floats and when you try to close it with the x – it also opens to a website – tricky!

augustlan's avatar

I’m a word nerd, baby. I’m not as interested in their origins as you are, but am in love with language in general. Unusual words, fun words, words and phrases that roll off the tongue… beautiful.

JilltheTooth's avatar

@zenele and @ipso : Big thanks! I love that stuff, always looking for etymological info. Sometimes it really clarifies meanings for me to put the words in context.

marinelife's avatar

Love words! Love to just read the dictionary.

zenele's avatar

@augustlan We should get a word nerd thread going – exotic, extra-ordinary and daffy words; @marinelife me too.

anartist's avatar

I love words. If I find a new one or one I’m fuzzy about while reading [especially online] I look it up. And, sort of like @marinelife, if I am using my hardcopy dictionary, I stop and read other words along the way to the word I’m looking for.

Lately I’ve noticed that I am wearing a larger vocabulary than I used to quite naturally. Not just using some words for writing but spontaneously in conversation.

Trillian's avatar

Awesome. I love words and thir origins. Somewhere, packed away in my stored stuff are some word origins dictionaries and one focusing on Latin root words.

zenele's avatar

I have found that fluther has improved my grammar and writing skills. I like how fluther challenges me to think, sometimes, but always makes shape up and do my best – at least when writing.

I wonder what it would be like if fluther were a video chat conference thing – where we all see each other and actually speak to one another. Verbal skills are so different from writing skills- and one can always edit and re-edit. I don’t; but one could. Talking live is another story altogether.

wundayatta's avatar

I’m often interested in understanding a word better, but I don’t go out of my way to learn new words or just read dictionaries. Sometimes these things come up in conversation, and that might stir me to seek more.

In my writing, I often seek out synonyms for words I want to use, but feel like I have used them too often. Oh, who am I kidding. I need the thesaurus because I can no longer remember words. I look in hopes of finding the word I can’t remember. It’s quite annoying.

Well, NPR said that even though our memories go, we actually are getting wiser, whatever that means. I wonder. Is there a word for that phenomena?

YARNLADY's avatar

@wundayatta Aye, it’s called savvy, arrr, arrr

muppetish's avatar

In high school, my AP English Language teacher assigned us to make etymology trees for a word of our choice. I chose “antidisestablishmentarianism” just to relish in the expressions of my perplexed classmates :) They didn’t so much care about the history or word breakdown… they just wanted to hear me say it.

At the moment, my favourite word is dybbuk. I was browsing lists of loan words on Wikipedia and fell in love with the sound and meaning of this particular Hebrew word :)

JilltheTooth's avatar

@muppetish : You just used one of my personal faves, perplexed. It’s fun to say.

zenele's avatar

@muppetish Good one. Actually, it’s obviously a phonetic word in English – as it came from the Hebrew; a language written with semitic letters, from right to left, comepletely different from English and Latin. Thus, Dybbuk, as you have spelt it, actually comes from Yiddish – which was taken from Hebrew.

Yiddish is about 80 percent German, some Hebrew plus languages it borrowed from, depending upon where the Jew was at – at the time. Spanish, French and other languages are in Yiddish which has given us Mensch, Schmuck, Schmekele, Mazel and Shlemazel (lucky one and unlucky one, respectively) and lots of food words. :-)

Deebook, would be how the Israelis pronounce the word in Hebrew; Dybbuk is the Yiddish pronunciation.

Thanks for that.

muppetish's avatar

Yiddish! Thanks for pointing that out. It’s a shame I didn’t because one of my other favourites is chutzpah. O Yiddish… if only I could learn every language, dead and thriving, that ever existed.

zenele's avatar

Chutzpah is classic: the definition of chutzpah is, ;-): someone who steals pants from a store, then returns to exchange it.

ipso's avatar

Chutzpah is a great word!

I found this a decent Yiddish short-list, for this ignorant goyim. (Or is that derogatory – and “gentile” more appropriate?)

zenele's avatar

Goyim shouldn’t be considered derogatory – but sometimes is. Why shouldn’t it? Because just as you, and everyone who isn’t Jewish has a word for Jews, so Jews have a word in Yiddish for non-Jews; Goyim. The singular is Goy.

Shikse, on the other hand… but don’t get me started.

ETpro's avatar

@zenele Aw cummon—you are started. :-)

The Urban Dictionary is often just a resource for street slang of the new millennium but I think it does a decent job with shiksa. What’s your professional opinion?

zenele's avatar

@ETpro They did a good job. I read the last entry which was excellently written: A Gentile girl or woman, especially one who has attracted a Jewish man. The term derives from the Hebrew word “sheketz”, meaning the flesh of an animal deemed taboo by the Torah. Since a Jewish man marrying a non-Jewish woman is taboo also, this word applies to her. Traditionally this is a derogatory term, though in modern times it has also been used more light-heartedly. For example, Seinfeld once did an episode about Elaine’s “shiksa appeal”. The ideal shiksa is a blonde WASP who look like the opposite of a stereotypical Jew, but in reality, many shiksas are brunettes who might pass for Jewish themselves.

I didn’t care for the second to last entry and then didn’t read on. It began with the words: An insulting term used by Jews to signify any non Jewish woman.

Not true. Trust Seinfeld.

ETpro's avatar

@zenele The entry at the top of the page was the one that drew my rave. Agreed on the second to last entry. True once upon a time, but the US usage has certainly changed.. I have only heard it used in jest by my Jewish friends here.

zenele's avatar

That is what’s so wonderful about languages in general, English in particular. The evolution of the word’s use and understanding. I always suggest to my students to do three things when learning a new word, term or expression (saying, adage, idiom, parable et al): To look it up in more than one dictionary, but especially a British and American (Oxford/Merriam, say); translate it as well as they can to internalize the meaning (my students are studying English as a second language) and last, to use it in a sentence and not lose the context. Then try to have fun with it. English should be a joy.

augustlan's avatar

When I was married to my Jewish ex-husband, I called myself a shiksa. ;)

zenele's avatar


@aug – I dare you to sign up here as shikse_something or shikse_augustlan etcetera.


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