Tuesday, 19 January 2010

A Convenient Truth?

Convenient - from Latin convenire meaning "come together, unite, agreed" - the root is the same for convene of course, but also convention.

"Conventional wisdom" is also "Wisdom that is convenient".

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Etymology: Stereotype vs Archetype

It wasn't til the other day when I read some Sherlock Holmes that I realised I already knew where the term stereotype came from.

Without knowing the exact mechanical process I knew it was a way of reproducing type. And that therefore to be a stereotype meant to be more or less a clone of an archetype.

The archetypical villain (or indeed anything) is an original, one off, not the one that broke the mould, but actually formed the mould.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Etymology of the Day - Three in one

What do a dot, to put in office and a failure of expectations have in common?

The other day my wonderful husband said "I'm not disappointed. I'm not even appointed." This set me thinking. Apologies for what turned out to be more and more like an essay the further on I went!

Etymology of Point, Appoint, Disappoint

These three words, via their secondary meanings can have three very distinct meanings. But through their etymology a mildly interesting tale is told. At least, I found it interesting...

Disappoint - The origin of this world is allegedly from a 1434 (First Attested Usage) derivation of the Middle French desappointer which literally means "to remove from the appointment" or, remove from office. It also had a secondary meaning (F.A.U. 1494) which leads to the one we use mostly today of "to fail to keep an appointment" which would, no doubt, lead to feelings of depression, frustration, or "disappointment". I have no proof when the modern meaning came into use, but I have good reason to believe it took much longer.

Appoint - this word takes us on a merry chase. Circa 1374 the Old French apointier, "to arrange, settle, place" which came from apointer , "duly, fitly" which came from à point "at or to the point" which ultimately came from the Latin punctum - which I'll come back to.

Point - Look up "point" in the dictionary and you're hit with a barrage of meanings... Hence the illogical trail for "point", "appoint" and "disappoint", I suspect. "Point" can mean a dot, a sharp end, a score marker or an idea. It can mean a specific location, a headland, a distinguishing feature or a position at the front of a team. And that's just for starters. There are many, many meanings, and you probably know them, even if you'd be hard pressed to reel them off. Dictionary.com lists 91 meanings in its first entry alone. The only word I know of that has more is the word "set", and that is 119. (There may be others, feel free to correct!)

The etymology of point from Etymology Online dictionary (I have contracted the entry where you see ellipses):

point (n.)
12c., a merger of two words, both ultimately from L. pungere "prick, pierce" (see pungent). The neut. pp. punctum was used as a noun, meaning "small hole made by pricking," subsequently extended to anything that looked like one, hence, "dot, particle," etc., which was its meaning as O.Fr. point, borrowed in M.E. by c.1300. The fem. pp. of pungere was puncta, which was used in M.L. to mean "sharp tip," and became O.Fr. pointe, which also passed into English, c.1330. The sense have merged in Eng., but remain distinct in Fr.* Extended senses are from the notion of "minute, single, or separate items in an extended whole," which is the earliest attested sense in Eng. (c.1225) ... The point "the matter being discussed" is attested from c.1381; meaning "sense, purpose, advantage" (usually in the negative, e.g. what's the point?) is first recorded 1903 ... Point of view (1727) is a loan-transl. of Fr. point de vue, itself a loan-transl. of L. punctum visus (cf. Ger. Gesichtspunkt) ...
*"The sense have merged in English but remain distinct in French." I had to look that up to refresh my memory, but sure enough the French have two words (albeit a masculine and feminine version of "point") where we only have one, which may go some way to explaining our overstuffed lexigraphic entry. (A search on the German translation for point reveals many more words and meanings, with only a few direct crossovers). The French word point (masc.) seems to refer to locations, ideas, scoring, prominent features and the more abstract inferences, where as pointe (fem.) seems to relate mostly to the jaggy ends of knives, spears, etc. and the physical references as of a headland, the end of your toes, stabbing feelings and so on. I will refrain from the obvious and somewhat childish comment about French views of gender!

Other derivations of "point" in French - a hint of something (for example a culinary touch of garlic) is also called a pointe which may well come from the root of puncta and punctum: pungere (think pungent) - something which pricks at your nose! Or it may not, but I like to think it does!

Finally, "point of view", which according to the entry above is a loan-translation of the French point de vue, which is itself a loan-translation of punctum visus and it also mentions the German Gesichtspunkt. Another translation from English to German also reveals the synonym Standpunkt or "standpoint", which has exactly the same meaning in either language.

The interest to me is that this seems to be a good illustration of the flow of language, how its streams divide, weave and merge across time and geography. And how it only does so in the right circumstance. The word "point" came from one single Latin root, split into two separate senses and then merged back into one, but only in English, not French. The German version of "point" came from the exact same root but fragmented. However, it maintained some other links in our beautiful, confused language. For example Spitze with a meaning "spike" sneaks back in with "spit" as in spit-roast. Also our word "spit", meaning land that juts into the water (like a headland?), leads us right back to "point"...

Monday, 12 January 2009

I was reading Stephen Fry's blog today and came across a post regarding language. What else, from that linguaphile and purveyor of the bon mot? Most interesting to me was language as it relates to the self, and the human.

Here, I record a small reply from a very personal point of view:

As to the question of which came first, the language or the thought, I have only anecdotal evidence to present. I have one distinct memory of being a baby. There were white wicker walls around me, something with sprigs of blue flowers, a dark window and the sound of crickets. I was far to young to have the words that represented these observations, or even the concept of anything other than to feel what I felt, which is to say a distinct feeling of loneliness.

This, to me, demonstrates that the thought came first. I am not disagreeing that the human mind is designed to absorb language like a sponge, especially at first, but that only makes it incredibly difficult to imagine what it was like without it. If only you could forget the Narrator, that chattering commentary that is a construct of your memory and imagination, if you could, in effect, switch all your brain off except the baser instinct, all that would be left would merely be a howl, a grunt, a whimper. But of course, this, in itself, IS language. As is a facial expression, the comfort of taking a hand gently, the release of built-up air in your lungs. Language is more than just words. Which is, of course, why I sound so pompous and pretentious to everyone else who reads this!

As to English, have you ever noticed with the blurb on the back of shampoo bottles, international packaging and the like that English is the most often shortest entry? We have so many different words and influences that we can pick and choose the shortest to fit the space available (hence 10 items or less, perhaps?) and still get the message across. This forces other languages to use a very different texture and many more words to create the same effect. For example the incredibly over-stuffed phrasing of French love-songs.

Finally I would like to submit to all that one of the most fascinating languages I have seen, to date, is Japanese. Not the spoken language... but the written. The spoken can be almost devoid of inflection, and yet the written seems to be where they stored all layers of meaning, puns, misdirection and wit. Of course, that is from the point of view of a gaijin, and one not very good with the language at all!

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Etymology of the Day - Perks

Hey, you know how it is when you get your perks - like when you work in McDonald's you get a free happy meal, but you have to pay £1 if you want the toy...

Perks comes from the word perquisite which I only realised yesterday when I read it in Moby Dick.

See Dictionary.com

Origin: 1400–50; late ME / ML perquīsītum something acquired, n. use of neut. of L perquīsītus (ptp. of perquīrere to search everywhere for, inquire diligently). per-, inquisitive

Never read Moby Dick if you're looking for an adventure story... However, do read it if you want to read a loving account of whales, sailors and 19th century life in a time capsule of language. Oh and just a hint of homo-eroticism.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Onomatopoeia of the day

Plummet - to plunge, to drop sharply.

Originally from the Latin "Plumbum" which means lead. Dropping like a heavy weight?

Okay, more like a pseudo-onomatopoeia. In my head anyway, it sounds like a falling body raising wind as it goes.

It also has psychosomatic qualities. For example, try going for a bungee jump, standing on the brink and not thinking the word "plummet" as in, "He plummeted to his death".

Inwardly groaning myself... sorry...

Smartest piano in the world?


An Einsteinway.