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A Word From the Wordsmith

In 1994, Anu Garg, a computer science graduate student in Ohio, decided to pick a daily word, study its origins, and share his findings with his fellow students. The result was, which today has more than 650,000 readers in 200 countries. Over the past 13 years, Garg has shared thousands of words with fellow linguaphiles, including illeist (someone who refers to himself in the third person, a la Bo Jackson), and petrichor (the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell), and origin trivia like the fact that “shampoo” comes from the Hindi word “chumpee,” meaning “head massage.”

Garg has just published a book of his findings, The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-So-Common Words, and now he has offered to blog here about origins of the word “economics.”

Mention the word “economics,” and it brings out images of pie charts, models, theories, and professors with glasses hanging on their noses. Billions of dollars hang on the mere grunting of economists such as the Fed chairman. There’s even a Nobel Prize in economics.

Well, economics has come a long way from its homely beginnings. The word “economics” has its origin in the Greek “oikonomikós” (relating to household management), from “oikos” (house). Going much much farther back, ultimately the word descended from the Indo-European root “weik-” (clan), which also gave us words such as villa, village, villain, vicinity, ecology, and parish.

Once upon a time, before we had Wall Street, the NYSE, leading economic indicators, and Alan Greenspan, there was a family. A household was the unit of economy, literally. The family worked the farm, grew its own food, cooked its own meals, and took out its own trash. Sound economy meant sound management of the household. No trips to Whole Foods, no visits to Chinese takeouts, and no pizza deliveries there.

Then things changed.

Specialization came along. Division of labor crept in. Today, before that bunch of lettuce hits the shelves in your neighborhood Albertson’s, a hundred different people may have helped it turn from the seed to the packaged, bar-coded merchandise. Beep of the checkout scanner, and it’s yours, free to take home.

Which brings us to the subject of home economics. Now that would be a redundant phrase, wouldn’t it? And is there a Nobel for the best in running a household?