I subscribe to Dictionary.com’s “Word of the Day” because, as the folks at the Reader’s Digest used to say, it pays to enrich your word power.
Each daily email features a word, ranging from those we use every day to, more often than not, those that only the biggest boobs among us work hard to slip into normal conversation — say, like deipnosophist. Along with a definition, or definitions, and some examples of usage, you can learn the origin of the word.
It is this latter feature that interests me the most. First, it is fascinating to see that no language is an island, and English in particular has been pollinated with ideas, concepts and words from Greek to Old Norse.
Second, every language has its own DNA visible through its origins, and is itself a form of DNA woven through our culture and history — in many ways, forming the building blocks of who we are and how we think. Sometimes the origin of a word, which often exposes the thought processes of the ancients who developed it, is more enlightening and meaningful than the word we are left with today.
Pusillanimous, which flitted into my inbox a few days ago, is one of those words.
It means “cowardly” or “lacking in courage or conviction.” But, as you can see, it is not a word most of us trot out on a daily basis.
Instead, the origin of the word is a more beautiful, elegantly simple definition of the concept of cowardice. It comes from two Latin words — pusillus, meaning “very small, or tiny;” and animus, meaning “soul.”
“Tiny soul.” Doesn’t that perfectly illuminate what a lack of courage truly is?