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By Chloe Sautter-L├ęger with Safyia Bashir, Samira Majedi and Cindy Lao February 29, 2016

The Origin of the Word World

Illustrated by Iuliana Irimia

What in the world is a word?

One answer to this question is that a word is a cultural artifact, and that an exploration of the origins of a word can give us a glimpse into the culture out of which it emerged. Below is an exploration of the word « world », traced back along several branches in the Indo-European tree of language and one in the Sino-Tibetan :

GERMANIC. The old Western Germanic languages all had equivalents to the Old Norse Miðgarðr. Old English called it Middangeard, and old High-German, Mittilagart. In Old Norse mythology, Miðgarðr, the place we live in, was created in the midst of destruction. Creatures and gods destroyed and devoured one another and a giant, Ymir, was born. Demi-gods slew Ymir and made the sea out of his blood, the ground from his flesh, plants from his hair, and clouds from his brain. After creating the first two humans (Ask and Embla), they created a fence, ‘garðr’[1] around them for protection. The realm of humans, because it was in the center of the Nine Worlds, became known in English as Middangeard—> Middellærd / Mittelerde—> Middle-earth. These Germanic terms distinguish the realm of people from what surrounds it in space and in time. From the ninth century, this word, alongside with synonyms Manheimr (‘man’s home’), and compounds of wira-alđiz (literally man-age = age of man),[2] was used not only in spiritual myths, but also to refer to the mundane earth on which humans live.

Wira-alđiz eventually became verǫld in Old Nose, weorold in Old English, and weralt in Old High German. Modern equivalents are veröld in Icelandic (although the more commonly used term is heimurinn); world, of course, in English; and Welt in German.

by Chloe Sautter-Léger


ITALIC. The origin of the word mundus is uncertain. It possibly consists of the same Proto-Indo-European root sounds as the Greek Kosmos : the morphemes muH2 and MeuH2. These sounds, roughly pronounced … , are linked to meanings similar to ‘wash,’ ‘wet,’ ‘clean,’ ‘order,’ ‘elegance,’ and ‘adorn.’ The origin of this word therefore suggests an orderly space. While the Germanic words for ‘world’ distinguish the temporary realm of man within a larger space and inside a system of different worlds, the Latin word seems to imply that our world is more structured than the chaos or void which probably preceded it.

Modern equivalents are monde (French), mundo (Spanish and Portuguese), mondo (Italian), mund or muond (Romansh), and món (Catalan).

by Chloe Sautter-Léger


SLAVIC. The Russian word for ‘world’ is мир (“mir”) in Russian. More than that, it is often interchanged with the word свет (“svet”), depending on the context of the sentence or the expression used by a Russian speaker. Both мир and свет are of Slavic origin, but the latter resembles more closely the words for « world » in other Slavic languages, such as Bulgarian свят (svyat), and Croatian svijet (sviyet). One surprising and interesting thing about these words is that although they are synonyms for the word « world, » they can also have two different meanings. мир can mean “peace,” and the word свет can translate as “light.”

What does it say that these two meanings can relate to the word ‘world’? In terms of peace, people wish to live happily, without any concerns, and peace is essential for this kind of ideal life to be possible. There is always a close relation between world and peace. Light, similarly, often represents the best, the highest, and the purest––i.e. perfection. This perfection is what people desire for themselves, as well as what they want their world to be like. Throughout history people have always tried to bring light to the world (think of the Enlightenment, for example). It can possibly have another, less sophisticated connection, which is the fact that light is literally omnipresent in and essential to our lives.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Russian words for “world” also mean “light” or “peace” can possibly make us wonder about the way our world should be, or at least the way we want it to be. Moreover, it can make us question ourselves as to whether we give enough attention to the importance of the « peace » and « light » in our “world. »

by Safyia Bashir


PERSIAN. In Persian, ‘world’ and ‘universe’ are both written گیتی , pronounced like “giti.” The word has the same root as the verb ‘to be’ and ‘to live.’ Inflections of this verb, 'Zi,' in the present tense are ‘gi’ or ‘g.’ گیتی is also used for the word ‘mercury,’ the mysterious liquid metal.

by Samira Majedi


CHINESE. While Indo-European languages use an alphabet to spell words, each letter representing a sound, Chinese words are formed by characters which have a meaning in themselves. The Mandarin word for ‘world is 世界, pronounced “shì jiè.”  It is, first of all, composed by the character 世, anciently written as 卅, which in its origin was formed by repeating three times the character 十 (“shí”). 十 means ten. This repetition illustrates that three decades have passed, conferring the character 世 the meaning of generations. 界 is formed by 田 which represents a field and by 介 which means ‘to lie between.’ Put together, they form 界 : ‘border,’ ‘boundary.’ 世界 could thus be seen as the boundary of generations. The world is after all made with borders within which generations of people grow or fall.

by Cindy Lao




[1] the word ‘garðr’ led to ‘yard’ and ‘garden’

[2] the word wira, which meant ‘man,’  is also related to ‘werewolf’ and ‘virile.’ Alđiz led to the modern English word ‘old’ (and the modern German word ‘alt’).

McCoy, Dan. Norse Mythology for Smart People. 2012-2016. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

Ayoto, John. Word Origins: The Hidden Histories of English Words From A to Z. London: A & C Black Publishers Limited, 2005. Web. EBSCOhost. 25 Jan. 2015.

About the author

Chloé Sautter-Leger is a fourth-semester Liberal Arts student. Her interests include writing, running, and gardening.

About the illustrator

Iuliana Irimia is a 3rd year Illustration & Design student.


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