The beautiful Mysteries of Vernacular is a word-nerd’s delight, a series of animations delving into the origin of words, using exquisite paper craft animation to spin an etymological yarn.
The animations are narrated in authoritative British, giving each story the feel of the 1970s show, Connections, in which science historian James Burke unwound the links between small moments in history and modern life. In this way, Mysteries of Vernacular, created by Myriapod Productions, lays out the connections between an ancient word for wolf, a triangular rake, a frame that held candles in funerals and, finally, a carriage (or car) that conveys coffins. All of these things come together to bring us the modern-day word hearse. Watch above.
The words covered so far are not in alphabetical order: assassin, clue, hearse and pants. Click on one of the videos for a beautifully non-linear story about how words shift and change as human societies do. There are connections, of course, between the early spelling and meaning of a word and its current use, but the journey from one iteration to another is the fun part—dotted with side trips through history.
The word clue, for example, was also spelled clew in ancient times and meant, of all things, a ball of yarn. If you know the story of Theseus, who was determined to slay the Minotaur at the center of the labyrinth, you might be able to figure out how a ball of yarn came to refer, more generally, to something used to solve a riddle or problem.
It may interest a few of you that the word vernacular has a shadowy story of its own to tell. Coming from the Latin word for a house slave born in their house of servitude, vernacular has come to mean native especially in the context of describing a language. Linguistic anthropologists, however, find the term offensive and prefer the phrase dialect.
According to Myriapod Productions, the Mysteries of Vernacular “will [ultimately] contain 26 etymological installments, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each episode takes more than 80 hours to create between the research, construction of the book, and animation.”
Kate Rix is an Oakland-based writer. See more of her work at katerixwriter.com.