I have a lifelong fascination with words and dialect. I grew up in the Midwest, but when we would visit my mother’s relatives in Texas, I was always interested in the different words they used for items I knew by another name.
My obsession with etymology took hold in college, where I majored in Spanish and English. I took classes in linguistics and in the history of English. I also took French and Spanish—a total of about 20-25 credits—with a professor who knew ten languages and who had done a Fulbright in Mexico studying Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs). Throughout the many courses I had with him, he always emphasized the history of Spanish, the derivation of words, and the connections (obvious and not so) among languages revealed by words we came across.
This interest in the history of language turned into a full-blown obsession in grad school, where I took a master’s degree in Spanish with an emphasis in historical linguistics. Without knowing it, I had landed at one of the best places in the country for this—the University of Wisconsin. They were then in the middle of creating the Dictionary of the Old Spanish Language, compiled by digitizing a huge corpus of medieval manuscripts. Their use of computers to accomplish this was revolutionary at the time; they started in the early ‘70s! From these scholars, I took courses in the history of Spanish, where we studied the process the language went through as it was transformed over time from Latin into its current manifestation.
I’ve been out of school for 20 years now, and a rare day has gone by that I didn’t look up the meaning or etymology of some word. I’m thrilled that in this smartphone age, I can have a full English dictionary, as well as a Spanish-English, in my hand, purse or pocket at all times. I consult them many times a day.
After 16 years as a librarian, I decided in 2006 to change careers and become an interpreter, though I had actually first worked as a (woefully underqualified) interpreter in 1980. I worked in a Cuban refugee camp that housed marielitos during President Carter’s “freedom flotilla.” I never thought that 30 years later I would be making my living playing with words again, but I do! Of course, there are many other things to navigate in the interpreter’s job setting besides what is being said, but words and meaning are always central to our work. It’s really a wordfreak’s dream job; I am grateful for it.