Approximately 20% (possibly less) of the words in the English language come from Anglo-Saxon roots. Approximately 60% come from Latin, but indirectly — usually through French.
The words that come from Anglo-Saxon have been part of the language for hundreds and hundreds of years. They name relationships and actions to which we have immediate, visceral responses: foe, naked, break, slam.
Often we don’t have quite as strong a reaction to the French/Latin synonyms of these words: enemy, nude, demolish, collide. There’s something about the French/Latin words that seems to smooth over or disguise things, to make them less stark than they are when spoken in Anglo-Saxon.
Here are some contrasts of words with similar meanings. The first is an Anglo-Saxon word, the second is a word derived from Latin, French, or French/Latin (from the Latin into the French, then into English).
In the end, King Lear goes mad.
In the end, King Lear goes insane.
You might say mad when you’re describing the plot to a friend, but you would be more likely to use insane if you were writing a paper on the subject.
together in conjunction
I feel satisfaction when we work together.
I feel satisfaction when we work in conjunction with one
The first one sounds more honest; the second sounds as if the speaker or writer is trying to amplify the importance of the process or relationship. Words of French-Latin origin can come across as being untrustworthy — as if the speaker or writer is trying to disguise something or make it seem more important than it is.
wicked iniquitous; nefarious
The politician’s refusal to help the famine victims was wicked.
The politician’ refusal to help the famine victims was iniquitous.
As in the previous example, the first one sounds honest and heart-felt. The second judgment doesn’t sound as severe as the first.
The knells sounded throughout the valley.
The reverberations sounded throughout the valley.
Knells is a somber word, implying the weight and seriousness of death knells. Reverberations sounds more scientific and thus more distanced and less emotional.
The everlastingness of our friendship warms my heart.
The perdurability of our friendship warms my heart.
First one: I am touched. Second one: get real!
It may seem, in the examples above, that I’m advocating always using words of Anglo-Saxon origin instead of using words of French-Latin origin, but that is not the case. Our language would be poorer indeed if we did not have words of French-Latin origin, because these words help us express thought, ideas, distinctions, and are widely used in law, science, politics, medicine, literature, and the whole world of ideas. Words of French-Latin origin have their uses, as do words of Anglo-Saxon origin. A writer (and speaker) must learn to use each to their best effect.
Here’s an example of how important French-Latin words are to the whole world of ideas. The paragraph below is from my nonfiction book, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. Each boldfaced word is derived directly from the Latin, directly from the French, or from the Latin through French — except for the word athletes, which comes to us from Greek, through Latin.
Women would play baseball again. From 1943 to 1954 they played on the most professional, most highly paid women’s teams the country has ever seen. But these teams were owned and controlled by men who required women to play the game with shorter basepaths and a larger, softer ball—concessions to women’s supposed inferior abilities. A reduced perspective was never the tradition of bloomer teams, who faced their fellow athletes on equal terms.
In the novel I’m currently writing, I’m using the differences in word origins to help characterize the two main characters. The working class character uses mainly words of Anglo-Saxon origin. The middle class character, who holds an M.A. from Harvard, uses mainly words of French/Latin origin. The words they speak and the words they think in help readers feel the differences between these two characters.
To help characterize the very literary and Harvard-educated Earl Derr Biggers, Gregorich used mainly words of Latin/French origin in Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers.