Tag Archives: Oxford English Dictionary

Dictionary research reveals problematic nature of labels

At the beginning of May, I named summer 2014 a season of risk-taking. I would try new things and reinvent myself!

Two months into an ever-erratic Iowa summer, I’ve realized the season has transformed into something else. Thanks to my senior journalism capstone, Think Mag, I developed a procrastination-worthy (but generally welcome) compulsion to analyze the origin of words.

Amid a word’s winding journey through cultures, languages and time, it often reveals a valuable nugget of insight — something even the modern reader can derive from an ancient definition.

While wandering the Internet recently, I searched “risk,” the word that had (supposedly) guided me. According to my beloved Oxford English Dictionary (I’m dreading the day my online subscription ends, due to my Drake graduation), “risk” means “the possibility of loss, injury or other adverse circumstance.”

The negativity in the word’s historical journey surprised me. I mean, I understand the potentially grave outcome of something like cliff diving — all I wanted was to find my inner rebel.

But that’s the power of word etymology: It forces me to rethink my frame of mind and the way I process language and its significance. Etymology reveals the alarming extent to which I simplify words.

Without exploring a word’s origin and ever-evolving definition, it loses complexity and beauty — cue the quick, neat label for my summer. No longer did I have to ponder the meaning of “risk” and “risk-taking” in my life. That word eliminated the productive potential of innate ambiguity.

Though I’ve since abandoned the “risk-taking” theme, it manifested in an unexpected way. I’m no longer searching for a theme or any means of defining my summer, and for a conclusion enthusiast and champion organizer, that’s pretty risky.