No, really — science is shit, etymologically speaking. But we’ll get to that later.
Partial click-bait titles aside, consider this blog post the spiritual successor to my language fixation entry from spring 2016. In that post, I described my humble beginnings as curious schoolboy and my transmutation to bona-fide linguist; here, I present a more specific fascination: the word.
Shove It Up Your Arsenal
Words are funny. Some prove highly resistant to transformation and hardly change at all in a millennium, while others seem to change at the drop of a hat. Humans, armed literally to the teeth with imperfect diction and hearing, have taken their word-ingots to the forge and have beaten the forms of those most malleable, sometimes leaving them so altered that they would no longer be recognisable in pronunciation or spelling to a speaker of the same language mere centuries prior.
Here are but a few mild processes by which a word may change:
Misdivision – The difference between “an ice cube” and “a nice cube.” This is the faulty separation, or “mis-dividing,” of two words next to each other. A few modern English words lost an N several centuries ago to the preceding indefinite article a.
“a napron” ⇒ “an apron”
“a nadder” ⇒ “an adder”
Works the other way, too.
“an ewte” ⇒ “a newt”
“an eke*-name” ⇒ “a nickname”
*Eke, here, is an archaic English word for “an increase, augmentation.” Therefore, a nickname is literally an “additional name.”
These misdivisions, of course, occurred in the Middle and Early Modern periods of English. Want a more recent example? Look no further than “a whole nother.”
Misdivision sometimes will manifest itself not in a word’s spelling, but rather in its pronunciation. Here are a couple modern examples I’ve observed:
Painstaking (meaning one “took pains” to accomplish something) is often pronounced “pain-staking.” I don’t know what it means to “stake pain,” but a word separation more faithful to the intended meaning of the compound would be “pains-taking.” Say them both. “Pains-taking.” “Pain-staking.” They should and do sound different.
“Each other,” in casual speech, sounds more like “ee-chother.” Very subtle difference, but a particularly careful speaker will make sure the /ch/ sound is attached to the first word and not to the second.
Metathesis – Sometimes we jumble the intermediate sounds of a word.
The Anglo-Saxons had a word for a beaked, winged creature: bridd. Over time, the R and the following vowel switched places, so now we spell and pronounce it bird.
The same people had a couple variants of the verb meaning “to call for an answer; enquire of somebody.” They were ascian [AHS-kyahn*] and axian [AHK-syahn]. (We know this verb today as ask.) The /s/ and /k/ sounds were pronounced in either order. Both verbs survived into Middle English as asken and axen, and Chaucer used both. Until around Shakespeare’s time, to “ask a question” and to “ax a question” were equally appropriate. (Such a construction would not have been formed back then, but you get my point.)
*In Anglo-Saxon phonology, S followed by C represents the /sh/ sound, as in the word scip (“ship”), so the verb ascian should have yielded Middle English ashen, but the Old English form was altered by the Scandinavian cognate, hardening the C, hence the metathetic X variant axian. Remember that the /x/ sound is really the consonant cluster /ks/.
Syncope – Sometimes called syncopation. Because music has a monopoly on most of the latter’s meanings, though, I prefer the original Greek. Anyway.
Syncope is the disappearance of an unstressed syllable in a word. It is usually the second of what should™ be a trisyllabic word. Some examples (and I got a million of ’em!):
- family ⇒ “FAM-lee”
- different ⇒ “DIFF-rint”
- chocolate ⇒ “CHAWK-lit”
- opera ⇒ “OP-ruh”
In British English, medicine is often “med-sin” and library is often “lie-bree.”
Sometimes, syncope yields new words. This is where it gets fun – at least for me. Here:
- courtesy ⇒ curtsey
- fantasy ⇒ fancy
- jettison ⇒ jetsam
Back-formations – When we derive other parts of speech from the original word.
A prime example is donate. This is a relatively new contrivance. The noun donation existed in English far longer than the convenient verb we designed after it. I guess people grew tired of saying “make a donation” all the time. That’s all well and good.
Here’s where the process becomes problematic – sometimes we create unnecessary or superfluous back-formations.
The verb that has traditionally corresponded to conversation is converse. But now we have “conversate” for some reason.
Many of the readers who are thinking, “Well, *I* don’t say ‘conversate’” are about to be caught with their pants down – what verb corresponds to obligation?
Oblige is the traditional verb form, not “obligate.” “Obligate” was born of the same ignorance that spawned the abomination “conversate.” They are equally hideous to my ears. You can denounce the use of “conversate” all you wish, but you had better not let me catch you saying “obligate.”
Parasitic Letters – New sounds sometimes latch on to other sounds in the same word.
Empty didn’t always have a P in it. But say the word as if there were no P. “Emty.” Hard NOT to say it without one, huh? Our lips close to form the /m/ consonant before immediately hitting that /t/ plosive, so it’s only natural that a brief “puh” sneaks in there. It was in the Middle English period that scribes began writing the word with a P. This is an example of euphonic alteration – when the spelling of a word changes to become more sonically pleasing.
More recent examples of both processes include yep/yup and nope. These affirmative and negative word variants come from clipped pronunciations of yeah and no, typically given as very quick, one-word responses. A subtle P latches on to the end of each word as the lips abruptly shut. An even more recent example is welp, a curt variant of well, as used interjectorily to introduce a clause (e.g. “Well, would you look at that.”). Welp is the same word, but its abbreviated vowel length conveys an even greater tone of surprise or vexation, as in the sentence, “Welp, there go my plans to relax tonight!“
But English words aren’t the only ones susceptible to these processes; we can see their mark on Latin words as well. To form a noun from the verb assumere (“to take up,” and origin of English assume), let’s add the suffix -tionem.
One would think that assum(ere) + tionem = “assumtionem.” But note the M and T next to each other.
The compound was actually written A-S-S-U-M-P-T-I-O-N-E-M. With a P. Meaning that ancient Romans must have fallen prey to the same “parasitic P” that infected the English word empty.
Don’t feel guilty for making an assumption; just make sure you don’t “assumpt” anything.
Associative Alteration – Changing a word to make it conform to an unrelated word. More examples that you probably won’t bother to read:
- perform – From Anglo-French parformer, alteration of Old French parfo(u)rnir. The second element fornir is related to the word furnish but was changed by association with the word forme.
- admiral – From Arabic amir-al or amir-ar-rahl. The D was added possibly by influence of Latin admirabilis (“admirable”).
- island – Very old English word that never had an S in it until scribes stuck one in there to make it cosmetically similar to the Latin-derived and unrelated isle.
Now that the dense stuff is out of the way, let me regale you with less-dense stuff!
Words can change in sound and appearance, but what truly enthralls me is to examine how they change in meaning over time.
This process is referred to as “sense evolution” or “sense shift,” and I will use both terms throughout this blog post.
How often does one use spearhead to refer to the “tip of a spear?” Of course, that is its original, literal meaning. But its more common meaning of “anything leading an attack, operation or undertaking” is a figurative understanding of the word. And it’s often used in the verb form, as in the sentence, “She spearheaded the initiative to help ex-convicts rejoin society.” We’ll return to this principle in a bit. In the meantime, however, I want you to take a gander at the picture below:
This image of a scale is absolutely critical in understanding this next part. Keep it in your mind for the next few paragraphs. There’s a family I’d like for you to meet. I present to you the Pends.
In this household live pendant, pensive, pension, pound (unit of measurement and money), ponder and all the -pend verbs you can think of (impend, suspend, expend/spend, etc.), plus others.
They aren’t what you’d call an idyllic, classic American nuclear family, though. There are no parents or children living there — only cousins — and you’ll hardly ever see any two of them in the same place at the same time. They’re a family that’s as large and extended as it is dissociated. But they’re all blood – this much is certain.
All the words listed in the “Pend” family are united via the notion of hanging and weighing.
Their origin, the Latin verb pendere, means “to hang.” And that’s how things were weighed. On scales like the one depicted above. What did the ancients weigh? Why, money, of course!
This is what we call the “ground sense.” The ground sense of a word is its initial, primitive meaning. The base from which all other meanings are derived. The ground sense of all the “Pend” words is hanging and weighing; this is the universal sense felt, no matter how faintly, amongst all of them.
A pendant is a hanging ornament. Something suspended is hanging in the air. Your impending doom is hanging over you. A pound of weight and a pound of money, if we go back enough centuries, are one and the same in England.
Pensions, expenses and spendings all are things being paid out, a sense conferred by the notion of weighing money.
Word senses generally shift from the literal to the figurative, as I demonstrated with spearhead earlier. We connect the contemplative meanings of pensive and ponder to the hanging and monetary meanings of the other words by using the scale as a metaphor for thought. When one is pensive or pondering, he is taking the time to “WEIGH things out,” thus, “consider.”
I know — I’ve got goosebumps, too. But wait — it gets even better.
What if I told you that this sort of sense shift can occur in parallel between two completely unrelated word groups from two separate languages?
The Latin verb capere carried meanings of “grab, seize, take hold, catch” and is the root of many French-derived English words such as captive and capture.
The same verb exists in Italian, albeit with an evolved meaning. Capere in Italian means “to understand.” Many Americans are familiar with the second-person-singular conjugation, “Capisci?” or rather, “Capeesh?”
How does such a physical, forceful verb take on a more intellectual meaning?
That’s right, class! Through figurative use!
When one understands something, he “grasps” it. He “takes” or “catches” the meaning. And this development occurred in English, as we can plainly see with the verb grasp. Its first “grabby” meaning is physical, just like the Latin capere. But a figurative meaning of “to get a hold of mentally; comprehend” emerged over time in both words independently.
Here’s another pair of unrelated words that underwent remarkably similar sense evolutions.
Latin causa (“judicial process, lawsuit, case”)
Proto-Germanic* thengan (“appointed time”) – ancestor of English thing
*Proto-Germanic is the reconstructed, theoretical common language of all the Germanic tribes that was spoken several millennia ago when they all lived in relative proximity to one another before splitting off and developing what would eventually become the modern Germanic tongues of German, Dutch, English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, etc.
Many of the Germanic languages held on to this word – thengan. In most cases, it came to mean “meeting, public assembly, council,” which more closely resembles in meaning the Latin causa. Then it shifted to mean “that which is DISCUSSED at a public assembly,” hence “matter.” From “matter,” it shifted again to refer to various nouns like “entity,” “body,” “being,” “act,” “deed” and “event.” Today, in many Germanic languages, the word means simply what we would call “a thing.”
This sense shift was mirrored in the Romance languages. The descendants of causa, which bore judiciary and public assembly meanings, include the French chose and Spanish/Italian cosa, all of which likewise now mean “thing.”
One more pair to demonstrate a parallel sense development:
Latin amicus (friend)
Friend comes from the Anglo-Saxon word freond, which is a noun derivative of the verb freogan, meaning “to love.”
Amicus is related to the Latin verb amare, meaning – can you guess? – “to love.” Anyone who’s taken a course in a Romance language should recognise amicus as the ancestor of the Italian amico, Spanish amigo and French ami – “friend.”
(Those especially keen might recognise it as the source of English words like amicable, amiable and amity.)
But here’s a Latin-based English word that gives me an internal chuckle every time I see it: enemy.
Hard to tell from looking at it now, but that word is the descendant of the Latin inimicus, which entered English via the Old French inimi. Let’s break down the original Latin word and see just how ridiculous it is.
inimicus = in- (“not”) + amicus (“friend”)
Therefore, enemy literally means “not friend.” Real imaginative, Romans. That’s right up there with fireplace for words that took minimal thought to produce.
What A Load Of Crap
Sometimes our prejudices keep us from seeing the truth. Two words that look nothing alike and with completely separate meanings still could be related etymologically.
Science is the word of academia. It encompasses the virtues of observation, concentration and patience. It is the embodiment of pure, humble intellect.
Shit is…well…none of those things, really. I suppose one could argue that patience is required for — actually, no, never mind.
These two words have nothing in common (save for their starting letter).
…Or do they?
Rewind, say, seven millennia or so. Before there was any Latin. Before Greek. Before any of the Germanic languages.
Linguists have reconstructed what is known as Proto-Indo-European (henceforth written as PIE), another theoretical parent tongue. This would have been the common language of the earliest settlers of the Eurasian landmass. As this first group of people began to disperse (over the course of several millennia), they developed their own dialects – e.g. Proto-Germanic, Proto-Celtic, Proto-Slavic, etc. And, of course, each of these became a language family in its own right.
The PIE root for “to cut, split, divide, separate” is skei-. This root, like many other PIE words linguists have reconstructed, was the progenitor of numerous nouns and verbs still in use in the extant Indo-European languages.
The prehistoric word served as the base for a couple Proto-Germanic verbs. They are skaithan and skit-. Both these verbs remained more or less faithful to the literal sense of “separating.” Skaithan yielded English shed (as a snake does to its old skin or a tree to its leaves) and German/Dutch scheiden.
The other Germanic verb skit- manifested itself in English as shit (dialect shite preserves the Old English vowel), in German as scheissen and in Dutch as schijten. All these verbs came to mean “defecate” on the notion of excrement being SEPARATED from the body.
PIE skei- was present in Latin words as well. It was used to form the important verb scire, meaning “to know.” But how could the verb for splitting or separating something mean that?
*cue angelic choir* FIGURATIVE SENSE SHIFT!
To “know” is to “separate one thing from another; distinguish.” The Roman verb became a metaphorical separation, whereas the Germanic verbs remained literal separations.
The noun derived from scire was scientia, meaning “a knowing; knowledge.” This is the obvious origin of the English science and all the Romance cognates.
(Bonus: The Greek verb skhizein (“to split”) comes from the same PIE root and is the origin of the English word schism.)
PIE skei- ⇒ Proto-Germanic skit- ⇒ English shit
PIE skei- ⇒ Latin scire “to know” ⇒ Latin scientia “knowledge” ⇒ English science
Therefore, science and shit are distant cousins.
Carry On My Way-“Word” Son
What a journey some words have! Sometimes they need to make pilgrimages across vast lands over great stretches of time to find themselves. It may take centuries for some words to settle at long last on one primary sense.
Nice is one of these “journey words.” (Not a technical term – just something I call them.) Nice was a Middle English borrowing from French, which in turn was an evolved form of the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant, unaware.” The Latin is an adjectival compound of the prefix ne- (“not”) and scire — yeah, that verb we JUST covered — meaning “to know.” It literally means “not-knowing.” (And, yes, that makes it related to shit as well.)
In French and when it entered English, it wasn’t too far-removed from the Latin, carrying meanings of “foolish, stupid, senseless, silly.” The sense development in English is remarkable, having shifted across “simple,” then to “petty, fine, minute, (a sense preserved in nicety)” to “childlike,” to “delicate,” to “agreeable, pleasant,” to “kind, thoughtful.” The Oxford English Dictionary says this about the word:
“In many examples from the 16th and 17th centuries it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken.”
The adjective slight originally meant “smooth, sleek,” then moved to “slim, slender,” to “feeble, not strong, inferior,” hence “not good,” before resting on “small in amount.” The German cognate schlecht followed a similar path, moving from “smooth, plain, simple” eventually to “bad, mean, base.”
Words can weaken and strengthen over time as well as narrow or broaden. The Old English yfel (Modern English evil) was the go-to adjective for anything negative or displeasing. The Anglo-Saxons used “evil” where we would use bad, cruel, unskillful and defective; the sense of “morally wicked” also was in Old English, but it did not become the main one till the 18th century. Slay, like its Germanic cognates, originally meant “beat, strike.” The English form, however, strengthened to “kill, destroy, especially with a weapon” later on.
Starve comes from Old English steorfan, meaning “to die.” Its main modern meaning is specified and weakened: “to be in the process of perishing from hunger or suffering severely from it.” German cognate sterben still means “to die.”
The Old English noun deor (ancestor of deer) meant “animal.” Today, it refers to a specific, antlered animal, while the Dutch and German cognates retain the broader definition. Linguists reason that the word narrowed to mean this creature in particular because that which we now call a “deer” was the favoured beast of the chase.
The verb try has assumed various meanings in the past few centuries. In Middle English, it was restricted to the legal sense of “put on trial,” but it has since expanded to “put to test” and “attempt to do” and “put forth effort.”
A word’s journey might take it so far that it ends up a complete 180° from its initial meaning. Moot, from Old English gemot, was the noun form of the verb meet. Much like thing, a moot was an assembly where matters were discussed. A “moot point,” therefore, was that which was “up for discussion or debate.” The modern opposite meaning of “not debatable; not worth discussing; impertinent; irrelevant” must go to show how effective those meetings were.
Before Our Very Eyes
Sense evolution and sound changes are not a purely historical study. If you squint hard enough, you will take notice of the more recent changes occurring in words.
Mad, for most of its history in the English language, meant primarily “insane,” but its newer meaning of “angry” has eclipsed the former in common use. Madman and maddening retain the traditional sense.
Oblivious did not mean “unaware” until the 19th century; before then, it meant “forgetful.”
Only a purist or a pedant (like me) might insist that words like these can mean only what they did originally. But that reasoning is flawed; nobody is going to call his dim-witted coworker a “nice” man to mean he is a simpleton. Similarly, most people don’t use decimate to mean “remove one tenth of,” as the ancient Romans did.
The hard truth about sense evolution is that, when a word acquires a new sense, the older one often falls into disuse, sometimes earning the label “archaic” or, more absolute, “obsolete,” at which point that particular sense is no longer understood by the common people. The old sense of obliviousness or oblivion, perhaps fittingly, may well be on their way to “the state of being forgotten.”
(Some old senses end up getting fossilised in idiomatic expressions. One such lucky specimen is large, in the sense of “free from restraint.” This sense is obsolete, except in the phrase at large, as in the sentence, “The murderer is still at large.“)
Take a moment sometime to listen to the way we use our words to convey specific shades of meaning. Soon and anon both originally meant “at once; immediately; without hesitation.” Because of human procrastinative nature, however, they softened to a more lenient “soon; in a little while.” Can you detect a similar shift with now? When we say that something needs to be done “now,” is there an implied grace period? Maybe a few moments? One might distinguish “now” from “right now,” the latter meaning “absolutely at this moment.”
In a similar vein, literally has shifted so much in popular use that speakers and writers may find it necessary to precede it with the word quite in order to express that something ought to be taken truly “literally,” that is, “precisely as worded.”
In merely the last century, the syllabic stress of harass and harassment has shifted from the first to the second. Second-syllable stress for those words has recently become the primary pronunciation, at least in American English. There are some, though (including me), who still prefer the traditional stress pattern.
The Internet is a trove of examples of linguistic shift in action. In this new era of instant communication and self-broadcast, words, abbreviations, acronyms, phrases and slang come into existence and develop in the online world at a rate unseen in the natural world. They obey the same linguistic evolution principles as their real-life counterparts, but their changes occur at a rapid, observable rate. I believe that they have a place in academic scrutiny. A few terms for thought:
- LOL – “Laughing Out Loud.” Possibly the best-known – and certainly one of the earliest – product of shorthand in online communication. Originally meaning that the person behind the keyboard is actually laughing; has been used at least as early as the new millennium to indicate that something is mildly humorous, even if no actual laughter occurs. Now often used as filler or placed at the end of a serious message to soften its impact. “Car broke down today, lol.“
- RIP – “Rest In Peace.” Popular in online video gaming culture, this solemn real-life initialism has been hijacked by the Internet. The phonetic “rip” pronunciation in online gaming was facetious at first but quickly became the standard. Originally used as an interjection for when a player dies in a video game; meaning has expanded to refer to the end or destruction of any non-human thing or institution; then applied to anything unfortunate, whether in a game or in real life.
Person 1: “Ugh, my earbuds are tangled again.”
Person 2: “Rip.”
- GIF – Image format that has had Internet users arguing over its pronunciation for over two decades. Once disparaged by know-betters as an ignorant corruption, the “ghif” pronunciation (hard G) is now equally valid to (if not predominant over) “jif.” Also, I may or may not have written a blog post on it last year.
Words, whether in the spoken or written form, serve as an allegory of a sort for their masters, the human species. Their evolutions are proof of where man exhibited great folly – and also where he showed poetic brilliance.
We are the words we use, in a way. To study words is to study human thought – and to study their scars is to examine our own image through the ages.
Reminds me of that classic speech from Hamlet:
…to hold, as t’were, the Oxford English Dictionary up to nature, to show poetry its own coinages, slang its own etymology, and the very speakers and writers of the time their pronunciation and usage…