Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, March 12, 2015



Saturday, March 14 is National Ask a Question Day. We’ll celebrate by taking a somewhat broad-brush look at the subject.

Speaking of broad-brushes: Indira Gandhi said, “The power to question is the basis of all human progress,” whereas L.E. Landon wrote, “Curiosity is its own suicide.”

The noun question came to English in the early 1200s, meaning a philosophical or theological problem. In the next century it added the meaning a difficulty or doubt, and by the 1500s we could use question as a verb. If we look back a bit further, things get a little dark. Question came from an Old French word meaning difficulty, problem, legal interrogation, or torture, which causes one to wonder about those Old French folk, as quaestionem, the Latin source of the Old French word, simply meant a seeking, a question, or judicial inquiry.

Free of that more menacing shade of meaning is the synonym query, which came to English in the 1500s as a noun meaning a question, from the Latin word quaerere, meaning to seek, strive, endeavor or demand. Query became a verb in the 1600s, meaning simply, to question.

It would be fair to say that behind most questions & queries we find curiosity, a word that arrived in the language in the late 1300s, meaning both the desire to know or learn & careful attention to detail. Arriving about that same time was the word curious, which meant both inquisitive, & the somewhat less positive odd, anxious, & strange. During a spate in the 1700s when curious was seen to mean exciting curiosity, curious operated in genteel circles as a euphemism for erotic or pornographic.

We’ll close off with author Fran Lebowitz’s addition to the conversation:

“Children ask better questions than do adults. ‘May I have a cookie?’ ‘Why is the sky blue?’ and ‘What does a cow say?’ are far more likely to elicit a cheerful response than ‘Where’s your manuscript?’ ‘Why haven’t you called?’ and ‘Who’s your lawyer?’”

Please use the comments section for any questions (or answers) about questions.


  1. Any post is great with a Fran Lebowitz quote! Isn't it amazing that questions used to be torture and now queries least for aspiring authors!

  2. And I bet the film, I Am Curious Yellow, from the sixties (I think) harkened back to those days when curious meant erotic or pornographic. You can see where my head is these days. I don't write gay lit for nothing. :)

  3. Hey Paul & Anne,
    Thanks for coming by. Anne, I love your torture=query observation. I wonder if most editors would jump in & agree. And Paul, Curious might also be equated with the word questioning - which might fit into your books.

  4. I wonder what word was used by English speakers in lieu of "question" before the 1200s. Did a synonym die out? Did folks actually communicate without such a word? Was "ask" part of the vernacular then? The more I think about these questions, the curiouser and curiouser I get.

  5. Ah, Ms Rabourn -- do I detect the linguist within? Curiouser & curiouser indeed.