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Pieces of Eight

ECU Classics Professor Steve Cerutti's close examination of the Oxford English Dictionary has led him to some unique discoveries about the origins of the words defined therein. He shares his research on word origins in a popular ECU class, often capturing his students' attention by discussing the surprisingly tame origins of some common obscene words. Cerutti has recently published a new book on the history of words. (Photo by Erica Plouffe Lazure)


Cerutti Pens *@#! Book

By Erica Plouffe Lazure

Those who know Steve Cerutti would probably say he’s never been at a loss for words.

But the recent publication of his new book, Words of the Day: The Unlikely Evolution of College English (Rampant Tech Press 2006), left this ECU classics professor speechless.


Inspired by his popular class on Greek and Latin for Vocabulary Building, Cerutti’s book examines the surprisingly innocuous origins of profane and obscene vocabulary through their classical Greek and Latin roots.

“One of the things I do to engage students is start out with a word of the day. Something to get their attention,” Cerutti said. “Oftentimes, it’s a word they’ve all heard and thought they knew the meaning of.”

Words under review include: Pornography. Clue. Oreo. Fornication. Horny. Poontang. Report. Testicle. Severance Pay.

“I started noticing what was keeping the interest of students in my classes was the history of the words,” Cerutti said. “We could spend an entire class on one word.”

But what interests Cerutti is not just the use of these words, but also knowing the origins of their meanings. That means Greco-Roman mythology; architectural terminology; and ancient language roots, all of which contribute to a basic introduction of the history of the origins of western civilization.

Take, for example, the word “fornication.”

“Now, that’s a word that would get everyone’s attention. But what does that mean?” Cerutti said. “Ninety percent of the words we use every day, we have no idea what they mean.”

While most English speakers would define “fornication” as having illicit sex, the root, “Fornix” is an architectural term, and the Latin word for “arch.” The Romans, who had invented the arch, figured out that the arch could take a huge amount of weight and started to build structures like the Circus Maximus, Cerutti said.

“Between events, people would use the archways and set up various shops. And a popular shop was prostitution. Unlike today, it was not seen as a bad or a good thing; it was another profession,” he said. “So to go ‘fornicating’ you were basically saying you were looking for an archway, and most likely, you would find there a prostitute.”

The words in Cerutti’s class got even more racy. And the more racy the word, the more lively the discussion.

“There is no such thing as a bad word,” Cerutti said. “In my class, we will discuss all words. I do this to desensitize them.”

Talk about Cerutti’s class spread and he now teaches more than 300 students in a semester. Eventually, Cerutti’s “word of the day” took a life of its own and a year and a half ago, he got a call from a parent of one of his students. The parent didn’t call to complain about the course’s profane language; he wanted to publish it.

The book was released this month by Rampant Tech Press. Cerutti held a discussion about Words of the Day at Barnes & Noble Booksellers on Jan. 17.

“I tell my students, this is the most important college course they’ll ever take at the university,” Cerutti said. “Words are currency. We use them out there every day. They should know the meanings of the words they use. When you’re in a job interview, don’t you want to be in control of what comes out of your mouth?”

Cerutti delves deep into the mythologies and prejudices that make up the 7 million words of the English language. In the Oxford English Dictionary — a copy of which Cerutti keeps on his desk in Bate — there are 200 words identified as cautionary and offensive. To not examine them and not explore or understand why they are offensive, is equivalent of not teaching about Adolf Hitler in European history because he was a bad man, Cerutti said.

“We have to be scientists and judge words accordingly,” he said. “Words do not control us; we control them.”

This page originally appeared in the Feb. 3, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at