Favourite word: Zephyr

Actually, I lie: this isn’t one of my favourite words. It’s one of my boyfriend’s favourite words and the name he gave to his university computing project (a chess engine). I thought I’d look it up. I knew it was related to the name of the Greek god of the wind (I can’t hear the word without seeing Zephyrus from Bottecelli’s Primavera, pictured) and could guess it had Latin roots, but I didn’t know much more. To be honest, I didn’t expect the etymology to be that exciting, however it turns out that there was more to the word than I first thought.

Botticelli’s Primavera

While it has meanings relating to the wind, it also refers to a type of butterfly, a soufflé type dish and some light fabrics. Really lovely to discover! I guess the common theme is lightness. Thinking about it now the word itself even kinda sounds light and breezy. A few of the derivatives I liked were zephyret, which is a gentle zephyr (I’m really quite fond of diminutive -et suffixes in general!*), zephyrless (adj.) and  zephyry. Zephyry is all the way from 1791 and I feel as though I’ve missed out on using it all this time, that’s going to change! I also like the use of zephyr as a verb, the OED gives the example “the breeze zephyred in”.

I absolutely love how when I find out about the backgrounds of words it makes me see them in a new way. Now when I hear the word zephyr the image of it will be tinged not only with an image of Bottecelli’s Zephyrus, but also butterflies, fabrics and soufflés. And the boyfriend’s chess engine.

* zephyret encouraged me to do a quick search to find out about the -et suffix. Apparently the -et suffix is often found in words derived from French and makes them diminutive. For example, sonnet (from the Italian word for song). I’ve always liked its diminutive powers: you’re not having a little snack, you’re having a snack-et. It’s the linguistic equivalent of the ‘drink me’ bottle in Alice in Wonderland. I became excited when I found out that crochet – one of my hobbies – was formed this way from the French for hook. Crochet just became cuter.


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