Posted by: Phil Anderson | July 29, 2013

The Meaning of Words

I love words. I find them both frustrating and fascinating. There are as many as three quarters of a million words in the English language, and any thesaurus will tell you that there are a lot of overlapping definitions. It can be a challenge to find a word that has the right meaning, makes the right implication, and gives the right sense.

One of my favorite podcasts is a radio program called A Way With Words, “a show about language and the way we use it.” Each week the hosts take calls and discuss words and phrases, talking about what they really mean and where they come from. It’s always entertaining and interesting.

Here’s an example from a recent show with a little of my own added research: everyone knows what a blog is, but where does the word come from? It’s an abbreviation of the compound word weblog. The first part refers to the World Wide Web — the Internet. The second part comes not from a chunk of wood cut from a tree, but to any record of activity.

There are many different types of logs. Star Trek used the infamous Captain’s Log, in which Kirk recorded “the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.” Radio and television stations keep a log of everything they broadcast. Moviemakers keep a production log of scenes and takes for later use during editing. Computers keep various logs, including changes to systems and data, and who has had access to it, thus requiring users to “log in” and “log out.”

The oldest use of a log in this sense is in sailing. The ship’s logbook would contain a record of each journey, including ports, crew, daily weather conditions, and most importantly the ship’s speed. Speed was significant because it was used to calculate longitudinal location. Without satellites and electronic equipment, measuring speed was an estimate at best.

To estimate its rate of travel, each ship was usually equipped with a large chunk of wood tied to a long rope with knots at regular intervals. The crew would toss the log into the sea, and as the rope played out they counted the number of knots over a certain short period of time. The ship’s speed, measured in knots, would then be entered in the book named after the chunk of wood – the log book.

Etymology stories like this can be interesting and enlightening. Do you have any interesting word stores? Please share them here, and feel free to leave any other comments about my blog. I promise not to be offended if you say it’s as interesting as a chunk of wood.



  1. The origin of sayings is also fascinating, especially those that appear to make little sense. What on earth does “happy as a clam” mean? What makes clams so especially happy? I found out that the full saying was, “happy as a clam at high tide.” Ahhhh, now that makes sense!

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