Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A Big "Guerdon" for Spelling Bee Champ

A hearty congratulations from all of us here at the Visual Thesaurus to Sameer Mishra, winner of the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee! Sameer, a 13-year-old from West Lafayette, Indiana, triumphed over his competitors by correctly spelling a very fitting word in the final round: guerdon, meaning "reward or payment." His reward was $35,000 in cash and various other prizes. The second-place finisher, Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, performed admirably on words like introuvable ("impossible to find"), but he eventually erred in spelling prosopopoeia, a personifying figure of speech.

As I mentioned last week, words in the final rounds are often highly obscure, coming into English from a variety of foreign sources. The contestants typically ask for "language of origin" to help them with these imported words, but the information given by official word pronouncer Jacques Bailly doesn't always help that much. In an earlier round, the eventual winner marveled at the linguistic trajectory that Bailly gave for hyssop, a bitter herb mentioned in the Bible: "Semitic to Greek to Latin to French to English." Whew! Sameer rolled his eyes and mumbled, "Wonderful," but then rattled off the correct spelling with aplomb.

The winning word, guerdon, also followed a circuitous route into English. It ultimately derives from an Old High German word, widarlōn, which is composed of widar "back, against" and lōn, "payment." This Germanic word was borrowed into Medieval Latin, with the second element, lōn, replaced by the Latin equivalent, dōnum, meaning "gift." (That kind of substitution is known as a loan translation or calque — see Orin Hargraves' Nov. 2005 Language Lounge for more.) The resulting word, widerdōnum, is something of an oddity in Latin, since you very rarely see a word starting with w- in that language. In Italian the word became guiderdone (not to be confused with Larry the Cable Guy's exhortation, "Git-R-Done!"). In French it got shortened a bit more to guerdon, and that's the form that entered English by Chaucer's time. In modern English it has lingered as a poetic or historical term for a reward, as in Walter Scott's Ivanhoe: "That will I do blithely ... and without guerdon."

The second-place word, prosopopoeia, has a more straightforward derivation, coming to us from ancient Greek via classical Latin, like so many other rhetorical terms. The Greek word breaks down into prosōpon "face, mask, person" + poiein "to make," so it's literally "face-making" or "person-making." It refers to a rhetorical device in which a person speaks in the voice of someone who is imaginary, absent, or dead. It can also more generally be used as a synonym for personification, a figure of speech where an abstract or inanimate thing is treated like a human being, like referring to "Mother England" or "Father Time." The -poeia ending (which Sidharth Chand unfortunately spelled as -poea) shows up in other English words, such as pharmacopoeia (a collection of medicinal drugs, literally "drug-making") and onomatopoeia (the use of words that imitate sounds, literally "name-making").

Of course, there's no time to appreciate all of this etymological richness as the words go flying by in the Spelling Bee. Let's hope that some of the anxious young contestants come back to the words that they memorized and learn a little about their fascinating histories.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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