Mysteries of Vernacular: animated etymology

Mysteries of Vernacular is a fun and admirable project from Myriapod Productions comprising short animated films about etymology. Each film sketches the history of a word in the form of a story lasting a couple of minutes.

There are to be 26 in total, one for each letter of the alphabet, So far, assassin, clue, hearse and pants have been completed. The animation is inventive, inviting, and understated, drawing viewers through an old book whose pages inform and amuse as they turn.

Here are the videos for clue:

and hearse:

You can watch (and await) others here. Jessica Oreck researches, creates and directs, while Graham James narrates.

Thanks to Cathy Relf for sending me the link.


14 Responses to Mysteries of Vernacular: animated etymology

  1. Marta Cappa says:

    As a writer, I love word origins. These are fun videos!

  2. Very artistic. A lovely project.

  3. Stan says:

    Marta: They certainly are. I’m looking forward to seeing more.

    Cat: Yes, a lovely style of animation.

  4. Shaun Downey says:

    Excelent stuff.I would love to see the others now. Clew also means the corner of a sail I think

  5. […] to Stan Carey, who introduced those of us who read his site to “Mysteries of Vernacular.”  “Mysteries of Vernacular” is a series of […]

  6. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Thanks so much for introducing us to this most engaging and highly creative “Mysteries of Vernacular” new video series. I was totally charmed by their limited animation approach to illustrating (literally) the origin of select words, using the English alphabet as their structural template, so to speak. Just viewing these few examples has really whetted my appetite for future installments.

    I was particularly appreciative of their inventive use of varying animated type styles, the play of evocative, solid-black silhouettes, and the occasional metaphoric splash of pure color; recalling one segment where several small splotches of vermillion red suddenly appear on the page, as an incident of someone’s bloody* demise comes up in the rather measured, monotone narration.

    Their standard animated opening of the book sequence, w/ the-letter-of-note-to-be-explained rising out of the white envelope, plus the use of graphically compelling montage elements (both static and moving) over the visual backdrop of solid page-copy, immediately brought to mind that fantastic, enigmatic, romantic, mysterious picture book series by expat Brit/ Canadian writer/ illustrator, Nick Bantock; namely his “The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy”, from the early ’90s, as I recall.

    When Bantock’s books arrived on the scene, I remember they became almost an immediate mini-publishing industry sensation (I was so smitten, right-off, that I bought all three books for my girlfriend).

    Bantock’s clever use of actual, functional, pasted-in envelops, containing intriguing letters, often w/ little clues as to future eventualities, and his gorgeously designed, colorful, exotic montage style, often using arcane public domain etchings, and haunting vintage photo imagery, seemed to offer just the right visual hooks to capture an audience who so desired to be taken away on a kind of novel visual/ literary magical mystery tour.

    The folks at “Mysteries of Vernacular” appear to be traveling in much the same creative direction as Bantock, and in my view have done a smashingly great job of it, thus far. Bravo !

    *I think the graphic blood splash came in the “A” for Assassin” segment. (Makes sense, no?)

    P.S.: –Just saw the highly touted French (sub-titled in English) feature film, based in late-’50s Tehran, Iran, “Chicken with Plums”, and recommend folks see it, as well.

    I won’t give any plot-lines away, but the opening credits that run for a mere couple of minutes, or so, are totally animated in a very simple, limited-grays-to-blue-grays graphic style, somewhat reminiscent of what our friends at “Mysteries of Vernacular” are doing. (Spoiler alert: Don’t expect a leading role for the “chicken”… or the “plums”, for that matter. HA!)

  7. Stan says:

    Shaun: Ah, so it does. I didn’t know that word, or I had forgotten it. In the plural it can also mean the rigging of a hammock. I’m eager to see the other videos now too!

    Alex: You’re very welcome; I’m delighted you enjoyed them so much. They really are charming and creative, with deft use of different animation tricks, and just about the right length. I imagine children would love them.

  8. languagehat says:

    Very nice videos, and the etymology of hearse is amazing — if I once knew it, I’d forgotten. I do find very annoying, however, the narrator’s insistence on anglicizing all the foreign words he reads. It wouldn’t matter so much in another context, but in a discussion of etymology it’s grating and potentially confusing (when he reads “French herce becomes English hearse,” the two words sound identical). Is it some English fear of sounding posh or weird? Anyway, nice videos.

  9. […] Mysteries of Vernacular: animated etymology ( […]

  10. wisewebwoman says:

    I particularly enjoyed the permutation of “hearse” through the centuries, all the way from wolf.


  11. Marc Leavitt says:


    Thanks for the video!

  12. Stan says:

    languagehat: Hearse took me by surprise too. I don’t think I was ever aware of its circuitous route to the present. But I know what you mean about the stubbornly English pronunciation; I got distracted wondering if Old French herce was really aspirated.

    WWW: Yes, the etymology of hearse is a wonder: all those twists and turns.

    Marc: A pleasure. Glad to share the fun.

  13. John Bagnall says:

    Lovely … I can only wish Myriapod Productions every success.

    (I’ve no issues with the English pronunciation as such, although it doesn’t help that the background music seems to compete with the voiceover at times; its overall level could be knocked back a tad.)

    Thank you for highlighting—not for the first time—a project well worth promoting.

  14. Stan says:

    Hear hear, John, and you’re very welcome. The music may be slightly louder than it needs to be, but at least the piece was well chosen. My motives in highlighting the project weren’t entirely selfless: I want to see it completed, and promoting it cannot hurt.

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