Thursday, June 02, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

[A regular Thursday feature of "Done with Mirrors"]

Today's list of words to be dissected was dragged, writhing and begging for mercy, from phrases that appeared in the Google "Zeitgeist" and the top 50 searches on Lycos for the week ending June 1.

One of the best things about Memorial Day in the age of the Internet is that, instead of standing in the sun and listening to local politico windbags bloviating, we can sit in comfort and read heartfelt but unadorned little essays from people who truly appreciate the day, like this one.

Memorial Day itself evolved in the years right after the end of the American Civil War (several towns claim the honor of originating it). but the adjective memorial has been in English since the 14th century. Its root is Latin memorialis "of or belonging to memory," from memoria "memory," which goes far back in time to the ancient Indo-European root *men- meaning "to think."

Other modern descendants of the same root are, in the Germanic family, mind; from Latin mental, mention, and comment; and, via Greek, mania and muse (and via it, music and museum).

The pugilistic reality show The Contender reached its climax last week. Contend is a straight-up borrowing from Latin contendere, the literal sense of which is "to stretch out, strive after." It's a compound of com-, used here as an intensive prefix, and tendere "to stretch."

Tendere is connected to another Latin verb, tenere, which means "seize, hold possess." The connection notion between "to stretch" and "to hold" perhaps is "to cause to maintain."

Both the Latin words come from the Indo-European base *ten-, and this is one of the most productive roots in our language. Dozens of common modern words have it embedded in them.

Among them, mostly from one or the other of the Latin words, are tendency, distend, detain, attend, extend, intend, retain, contain, obtain, maintain, ostensible, tenant, tense, tenure, tenacity, tendon, tenable, sustain, both tenders, and pertain, abstain, and portend. Also in the family are tend "to incline, to move in a certain direction," and tetanus, from Greek teinein "to stretch;" so called because the disease is characterized by violent spasms and stiffness of muscles.

Some of the less obvious examples are:

  • Hypotenuse, from Greek hypoteinousa, literally "stretching under" (the right angle).

  • Tantric, used loosely in the West to denote erotic spiritualism, from Sanskrit tantram, the name of a type of Hindu religious book, literally "loom, warp;" hence "groundwork, system, doctrine," from tan "to stretch, extend."

  • Detente, from French détente "loosening, slackening," from Vulgar Latin detendere "loosen, release."

  • Sitar, from Hindi sitar, from Persian sitar, literally "three-stringed," from si "three" + tar "string."

  • Tenor, in its original sense of "general meaning, purpose, drift," which is from Latin tenor "contents, course," originally "a holding on," from tenere. The musical sense of "high male voice" (attested from c.1388), is because the sustained melody (canto fermo) was carried by the tenor's part.

  • Entertain, which originally meant "to keep up, maintain," a compound formed in Old French from entre- "among" and tenir "to hold," from Latin tenere. The sense in English evolved through "have a guest" (1490) to "amuse" (1626).

  • Tent "portable shelter," originally one made of hides or cloths "stretched" over poles. Related to that is tenter, a good medieval noun meaning "wooden framework for stretching cloth," now surviving mainly in the figurative use of the compound tenterhooks, which originally were "the hooks that hold cloth on a tenter." The figurative phrase on tenterhooks "in painful suspense" is recorded from 1748; an earlier form was on tenters (1533).

  • Tenement, an Anglo-French legal term which originally (13th century) meant "holding of immovable property" (such as land or buildings).

  • Tone, from Latin tonus "a sound, tone, accent," literally "a stretching." This was a Medieval Latin musical term borrowed from Greek tonos, which meant "vocal pitch, raising of voice, accent," as well as "key in music." Its literal sense was "a stretching, taut string."

A related Latin word was tenuis "thin, rare, fine;" and from this come tenuous "having slight importance, not substantial," and extenuate.

Finally, from the Germanic branch of this vast Indo-European family comes thin (Old English þynne "narrow, lean, scanty").

Natalie Glebova of Canada won the 2005 Miss Universe contest in Thailand.

Universe meaning "the whole world, cosmos," is a late 16th century borrowing, via French, from Latin universum a noun use of the neuter adjective universus, meaning "all together," and literally "turned into one," from unus "one" and versus, the past participle of vertere "to turn" (which relates universe to both verse and perverse). The Latin word properly is a loan-translation of Greek to holon "the universe," noun use of the neuter of the adjective holos "whole."

In Greek and Latin, "universe" may be strictly neuter, but in this beauty contest, it has a gender.

Miss, as "the term of honour to a young girl" [Johnson] is a shortened form of mistress. Thus it's not surprising that its earliest use (1645) was for "prostitute, concubine;" the sense of "title for a young unmarried woman" first is recorded in 1666.

In my 1811 reprint of an older slang dictionary, Miss Laycock is given as an underworld euphemism for "the monosyllable." [Hint: It begins with a c. She has one; he doesn't; though he may be one.]

Which segues nicely into a news story that, according to Yahoo, was the most-read item in their menu in the U.K. and Ireland this week:

San Francisco hosts self-pleasure marathon

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco's Center for Sex and Culture played host on Saturday to the city's annual "Masturbate-a-thon," an event its organizers said could draw up to 120 people from across the United States aiming to have a good time with themselves.

The event was organized to help raise funds for the center, and, according to its organizer, provide an outlet for safe sex for those who enjoy pleasuring themselves in a semi-public setting.

Carol Queen, director of the center, acknowledged that the event is unusual -- even by San Francisco's standards. The permissive city, which helped ignite a debate on gay marriage last year, tolerates many sorts of sexual behavior but masturbation seems a topic that is off-limits, she said.

"Even people who are sexually frisky ... might have the bias that many Americans do, that it's second-best sex, that it's something you do if you can't figure something else out," Queen said.

The Saturday night event also had a competitive side.

One New York man arrived shortly after 5 p.m. seeking to break the endurance six-and-a-half hour record set at last year's event. The rules allow for a five-minute break every hour.

The female marathon winner last year, Norine Dworkin, chronicled her experiences in the women's magazine Marie Claire, saying hours later the activity was "about as pleasurable as rubbing an elbow."

And so forth. Masturbation has been around in English since 1766, a formal, Latinate word to cover an activity that used to be known by other terms.

The Latin root of it is the verb masturbari which is a compound of manu, the ablative form of manus "hand" and stuprare "defile" (oneself), which is related to stupere "to be stunned, stupefied" (the root of stupid).

The natural form of this compound in Latin would be *manstuprare, but the word seems to have been altered in Latin, probably by influence of turbare "to stir up."

Earlier English terms for this included onanism (1727), a reference to Onan, son of Judah (Gen. xxxviii.9), who spilled his seed on the ground rather than impregnate his dead brother's wife: "And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother." Somehow this family inheritance squabble was twisted into a prohibition of masturbation.

Another term was self-abuse (1728), and even earlier was self-pollution (1626). The common slang jerk off only dates to 1916.