Thursday, November 03, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

Senior al Qaeda captive fled U.S. prison is a headline that pairs well with the one about the CIA operating covert prisons in some unnamed Eastern European country. If I were a resident of that country, I'd start locking my doors at night, because it seems like a U.S. prison for terrorists is easier to walk away from than a used car lot.

Prison is one of the legal words that entered English from French after the Norman conquest of 1066. The Old French word, prisoun had been altered by influence of pris "taken" (source of the noun prize) from an earlier form, preson, which was contracted from Latin prensionem, itself a shortening of prehensionem "a taking."

This was a noun of action from the past participle stem of prehendere "to take, to grasp, to seize." And this is a compound of præ- "before" and the root -hendere, which had a general sense of "Clinging, grasping" (one of its nearest relations in Latin is hedera, the word for "ivy").

The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European base behind this looks like *ghe(n)d- and means "to seize." In Greek, it yielded khandanein "to hold, contain, take in;" in Lithuanian godetis "be eager;" in Welsh gannu "to hold, contain," and in Old Church Slavonic gadati "to guess, suppose."

The English version of the root, get, has, in addition to its literal sense, a modern colloquial sense of "mentally grasping" similar to the metaphoric sense adopted for this word centuries ago in Slavic (and in Latin, in the root of comprehend) of "to try to get with the mind."

Philologists conclude that modern English get comes from Old Norse geta "to obtain, reach." The root was in general use in the Germanic languages, but Old English (like Dutch and Frisian) only had the word in compounds, such as begietan "to beget," forgytan "to forget." Vestiges of the Old English form of the word remain only obliquely, in the past participle gotten and the original past tense gat.

Iran, meanwhile, is determinedly keeping to its policy of irritating the rest of the world. It has yanked 40 ambassadors from various capitals, apparently because they were considered too fond of the 21st century.

An ambassador is very close to a slave, in linguistics. It's a word the Romans picked up from the Celts, probably in Gaul, who seem to have entrusted ambassadorial missions to a class of vassals.

The word is from Latin ambactus "a servant, vassal," from Celtic amb(i)actos "a messenger, servant, dependant, vassal." It literally means "one going around." The Proto-Indo-European roots of the compound are *ambhi- "about" and *ag- "to drive, to lead." It passed through Provençal or Spanish into French, as embassator. It entered English in Chaucer's time, from French.

The native Latin word for "ambassador" would have been legatus, source of legate.

Traditionally, ambassadors have not only represented their countries abroad, they have sent home (or stolen) interesting products in the lands where they serve. Two prominent plants are named for ambassadors: Poinsettia, in allusion to Joel R. Poinsett (1779-1851), U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who is said to have brought the plant to the attention of botanists, and Nicotiana, the forman botanical name of the tobacco plant (and source of nicotine), named for Jean Nicot (c.1530-1600), French ambassador to Portugal, who sent tobacco seeds and powdered leaves back to France in 1561. His name is a diminutive form of Nicolas.

Rioting continues in the heavily Muslim suburbs of Paris, a source of great consternation in France and no little schadenfreude among Americans, who recall the supercilious commentary of French media on America's grappling with issues raised by race and immigration.

Riot, when it first befan to be used in English around 1225, meant "debauchery, extravagance, wanton living." It comes from Old French riote "dispute, quarrel," which is perhaps from Provençal riota, but there the trail goes cold.

The meaning "public disturbance" is first recorded 1390. The colloquial meaning "something spectacularly successful" is first recorded 1909 in theater slang. To run riot is first recorded 1523, a metaphoric extension from the Middle English meaning in reference to hounds following the wrong scent. The Riot Act, part of which must be read to a mob before active measures can be taken, was passed in 1714 (1 Geo. I, st.2, c.5).

Senate's Gang of 14 Fractures over Alito, the headline reads, proving the uselessness of time travel. If your self from five years ago had been able to travel to the present and read that, it would have no idea what was happening.

The original sense of gang is "going," preserved in gangplank and gangway (Old English gangweg "road, passage"). The ancient root of it is a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European base *ghengh- "to step" (also underlying Sanskrit jangha "shank," Avestan zanga- "ankle," and Lithuanian zengiu "I stride"). It's uncertain, however, whether the word is related to go.

Anglo-Saxon gong meant simply "a going, journey, way, passage," but its Viking cousin gangr meant "a group of men, a set," which shows that this sense had emerged in very ancient times. The sense evolution is probably via a meaning "a set of articles that are usually taken together in going," especially a set of tools used on the same job. By 1627 this had been extended in nautical speech to mean "a company of workmen," and by 1632 the word was being used, with disapproving overtones, for "any band of persons traveling together."

The Senatorial reference seems to be derived from Gang of Four (1976), which translates Chinese sirenbang, the nickname given to the four leaders of the Cultural Revolution who took the fall in Communist China after the death of Mao.

In the post I wrote immediately before this one, I used the word hike. This looks like a good, sound Anglo-Saxon word, but in fact it only is attested from 1809, as a dialect word (hyke) meaning "to walk vigorously," and its further ancestry is a mystery.