At my age it is important to always find new and exciting ways to waste time.
You know what it’s like when you write: you become obsessed with words. And so it was that I came to write down the word ‘expert’ and my mind flipped. You see, I know that ‘ex’ means former, or occasionally formerly, and I know that ‘pert’ means attractively small and well shaped (although I can pretty much guarantee that all of my male readers now have the self-same image imprinted on the brain) and, as far as I am concerned, it suddenly makes being an expert in any field a very much less appealing proposition, because nobody wants to be ‘once-upon-a-time small and attractive’, particularly if they are about to give a lecture to a room full of students. (Worse, if I’m honest, that I only have to think of the word to conjure up an image of Daddy Pig* – which is, to say the least, disturbing.)
Now I know, I understand, that you are all educated people and sooner or later one of you is going to point out that ‘expert’ is not, within the meaning of the act, a ‘portmanteau’ word at all. (Intriguingly, neither is portmanteau.) It is not the sum of two thrust-together halves like brunch, dumbfound and Velcro (velvet + crochet – no, I didn’t know that either!) but is a single unfused entity. This is the problem with etymology – once you start to look for the origin of words, you find them – even when they are not there.
It all started a few weeks ago, on this very platform, following a fleeting mention of Viking place names, when I began to wonder what an expert in such things might be called (a Viking expert, as it disappointingly turns out) and, inevitably, I became lost in an accidental off-piste ramble. First of all – and quite logically in my opinion – I started to wonder about the actual word ‘etymology’: where does that come from? Well, it comes from a Greek word etumos apparently, meaning ‘truth’ – as in ‘true meaning’ – which got me precisely nowhere (a venue with which I was strangely familiar). I wondered if the Vikings had a word for it. I still do. If you can find out, I would love to know. I have spent many hours trying to persuade Google that I do not want to know the etymology of the word ‘Viking’ but rather whether the Vikings themselves had a word for ‘etymology’, to absolutely no avail. It is not to be persuaded**. Google has, of course, developed an Artificial Intelligence that clearly believes (and can no doubt prove) that I am beneath it.
Frustrated beyond… beyond… oh, there must be a word for it, I tried to drag my mind back onto the original subject but, let’s be honest, the journey from ‘pert’ to archaeology can be a very long one – particularly when you get to my age – so, eventually, I just gave it a blank sheet of paper and a pencil to play with, while I began to wonder about the word ‘crayon’***…
*Daddy Pig, from Peppa Pig, considers himself an expert in most things, which he feels obliged to demonstrate, usually with disastrous consequences: life imitating seriously annoying cartoon toddler fodder.
**It did, however, inform me that the word ‘Reindeer’ comes from the Viking. So, I wondered, did the Vikings believe in Father Christmas? Well, apparently yes: Christmas was called Yule and the old bearded man flying across the sky was Odin. Google does not tell me whether he sat in a cardboard grotto in the middle of the supermarket for weeks before the event though, nor whether he had horns on his Santa Hat.
***Intriguingly, I Googled “what is the origin of the word ‘crayon’” only to find myself being informed that ‘vagina’ was originally the word for the sheath into which a sword was (forgive me) inserted. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps Google’s AI is even more human than we thought…