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Why You Should Take Etymology at Duke

By Maya Todd, Class of 2025

Every word is more than just a word, it is the result of centuries of human history. Words have weathered a tumultuous journey of translation, assimilation, and reformation to end up on this screen in front of you. We can think of words like people. They are more than what you see on the surface; they are the myriad of experiences and ancestors that created that individual word.

The study of this journey can be found at Duke University in Room 106 of the Allen Building, in a class called Etymology. According to Professor Crews (who has a 5-star rating on Rate My Professor, by the way), the class covers the history of Greek and Latin contributions to English with the objective of vocabulary-building and an emphasis on analyzing words and recognizing their power in society. Through taking the class, I have found a growing sense of respect for the building blocks of our lexicon. Class discussions are also very entertaining: Did you know the word assassin comes from a mishearing of the Arabic word for stoner? One of my favorite lectures was Crews’s analysis of explicit language, how ****ing cool?!

Proto-Indo-European Family Language Tree

This class teaches not only how to break down and understand words, but facilitates conversations on how to wield them. From code-switching to political announcements, language is an essential part of interacting with those around us. There are fascinating debates on all sides of the power of language to unite, alienate, and obscure truth. Even as I am writing this blog, I am reflecting on the power of words to share my experience in this class with a plethora of people I may never meet.

Before Duke, I never knew that you could study such rare subjects such as the origins of words, but I am so excited to have had the opportunity to learn about it here. Duke is full of incredibly unique classes, and I would recommend this class to anyone who is interested in understanding how language allows us to construct and interact with the society around us!

Etymology Class with Professor Crews

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