Thursday, November 17, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"

Here's a word that's been in the news this week:

Torture turns up in English about 1495, from Middle French torture "infliction of great pain, great pain, agony," from Late Latin torture "torture, torment," more literally "a twisting, writhing," from the stem of Latin torquere "to twist, turn, wind, wring, distort." The more literal sense of the root is preserve in English in tortuous "full of twists," which is recorded from 1426.

The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root of this is *twork-/*twerk-, which meant simply "to twist," which was the original sense of the Latin word. The ancient sense is preserved in words such as Sanskrit tarkuh "spindle," Old Church Slavonic traku "band, girdle," Old High German drahsil "turner," and German drechseln "to turn on a lathe."

The Germanic form of the root (*thwerkhaz) is represented in modern English by thwart, which is a Viking word, from Old Norse þvert "across." Old English had a cognate word, þweorh, which meant "transverse, perverse." The sense and the pronunciation of this group of words in Germanic seems to have been influenced in ancient times by the similar-sounding root *thwer- which meant "to turn." And the Germanic words also developed a secondary sense, not of torture but of anger. Old English þweorh also meant "angry, cross." Dutch dwars, from the same root, means "cross-grained, contrary," while Gothic had þwairhs "angry."

One of the odder relatives of torture, thus, is queer which drifted quietly into English from Scottish around 1500 meaning "strange, peculiar, eccentric." The Scots seem to have picked it up from the Brunswick dialect of Low German, where queer meant "oblique, off-center." It likely comes from Old High German twerh "oblique," from the same Proto-Indo-European base as torture. [Queer in the sense of "homosexual" seems to have been first recorded in 1922, but may have been in oral use for some time before that.]

The Latin root also has come up into English in torque "rotating force," and in compounds, such as extortion (Latin extorquere "to wrench out, wrest away"), retort (Latin retorquere "to turn back"), contort (Latin contorquere "to whirl, twist"), distort (Latin distorquere "to twist different ways, distort").

The legal word tort "breach of a duty, whereby someone acquires a right of action for damages" (1586) also is ultimately from Latin torquere. Its earlier meaning in English was simply "injury, wrong" (c.1250), which comes via a Medieval Latin tortum "injustice."

Another possible relative here is the plant name nasturtium, which was the name the Romans gave to a watercress-like plant they knew. Pliny explained the word as *nasitortium, literally "nose-twist," from nasus "nose" and the past participle of torquere. Supposedly this was because of its pungent odor. But Pliny was a nautralist and his folksy guesses at the etymologies of names of plants and animals often are wildly wrong. The Latin plant name was extended in 1704 to a South American trailing plant with orange flowers that bore some resemblance to the original nasturtium.

Yet another relative is torch, which comes from Old French torche, a word which originally meant merely "twisted thing" and probably is yet another descendant of Latin torquere. The modern sense of the word probably developed via a notion of "torch formed of twisted tow dipped in wax."

The transition from "twisting" to "the deliberate inflicting of severe pain with some purpose in mind" probably is directly via some various early form of torture that involved twisting the limbs. It may come directly from the ancient device known as the rack. The Latin word tormentum "twisted sling, rack," also has come up into Modern English as a word (torment) meaning "the inflicting of torture, state of great suffering."

The rack itself seems to have inflicted torture more by stretching than twisting, but to operate it the torturer twisted a lever, hence perhaps the connection of "torture" with "twisting" was via machinery, not direct action on the body. Either way, it's unpleasant to contemplate.

The English word rack meaning "frame with bars" seems to come from some Continental Germanic word related to Old English reccan "to stretch out."

Words for "to stretch" also come to mean "to torture" in other languages, such as Sanskrit (rjyati "he stretches himself," riag "torture")

There are three words that sound alike in English and often are confused. This rack is one of them. Another is the obscure rack that means "clouds driven before the wind," and also "rush of wind, collision, crash," a word that survived in Northern English dialects from Old English racu "cloud," itself an obscure word.

This second wrack often is mistaken for wrack, especially in the phrase (w)rack and ruin, in which wrack is the correct word. The distinction is that rack is "driven clouds;" wrack is "disaster, destruction."

Wrack is related to Old English wræc "misery, punishment," and wrecan "to punish, drive out" (modern wreak). The root of this is the ancient word that became modern work. The meaning "damage, disaster, destruction" (in the phrase wrack and ruin) is recorded from c.1408. This wrack, in turn, has been confused since at least the 16th century with the first rack, the one that means "to torture on the rack." A common form of error is to write to wrack one's brains, where rack is the correct verb.

Some people may detect intelligent design and the hand of a master guiding the natural world. I assure you there is no such thing in language, where evolution is as messy and random as you could wish.

That there was a great deal of religious persecution at the root of torture in the period that word came to mean what it now does, is suggested by the French supplice, often translated into English as "torture," but really "a public torture and execution," as of a heretic (French also has torture, used in the non-ceremonial sense), a word clearly related to Latin supplicare "plead humbly" and English supplicant.

The two types of torture (private, to obtain confessions or information, and public, for the sake of humiliation and as a warning to others, and typically ending in death) seem to have been distinct experiences by pre-Christian times, a distinction perhaps suggested by the use of two words (cf. Latin cruciare, torquere).

Compare also the verb to pine, now weakened to "to languish, waste away," but originally transitive and, as Old English pinian meaning "torture, torment, afflict, cause to suffer." The word is widespread in Germanic (cf. Middle Dutch pinen, Old High German pinon, Old Norse pina), but it seems it ultimately represents Latin poena "punishment, penalty," a word that rode into Germanic with Christianity.

The Church connection probably explains why torture chased off native Anglo-Saxon words for "torture" (the English were quite familiar with the operation). An ancient Germanic root for "torture" -- and perhaps the pure Indo-European root for the concept, seems to be represented in modern English quell. The modern sense of "to put an end to, allay, suppress, extinguish" is considerably weakened from Old English, where cwellan was one of the principal words for "to kill, murder, execute."

The "torture" sense of this word is explicit in Old Saxon quellian "to torture, kill;" Old Norse kvelja "to torment;" Middle Dutch quelen "to vex, tease, torment;" Old High German quellan "to suffer pain," German qualen "to torment, torture;" and beyond Germanic in Armenian kelem "I torture;" Old Church Slavonic zali "pain;" Lithuanian gela "agony," gelati "to sting").

Curiously, Old English also had a word for "torture" that literally meant "to twist." The verb is wriðan, related to modern wreath (which keeps the literal sense). But the "torture" sense appears in Christian writers like Ælfric, who likely were influenced in their choice of words by Latin authors.

Yet another Old English word for "torture" (n.) was wite, though this seems to have been used in reference to torture as official punishment. This word, and its Germanic relatives, come from the Proto-Indo-European base *weid- "to see." The sense evolution seems to be parallel to that of Latin animadvertere, literally "to give heed to, observe," but later "to chastise, censure, punish." It's specific sense of "torture," again, seems to be a post-Christian development.

Wite has a living relative, very much disguised, in the verb twit, which is a shortened form of Middle English atwite, from Old English ætwitan "to blame, reproach," a compound of æt "at" and witan "to blame."