Thursday, May 04, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

Immigration protests dominated the headlines this week.

The noun immigrant is a fairly recent one in English, first attested only in 1792. The date suggests a first emergence in reference to refugees from the French Revolution, but most of the earliest citations seem to refer to the American states.

People immigrated before that, of course. The verb naturalize meaning "admit (an alien) to rights of a citizen" dates back to 1559, and immigrate itself, as a verb, goes back to 1623 (migrate, in reference to persons, is recorded from 1611). But the idea of people leaving one land to seek a better life in another seems to have taken hold with the mass migration of Europeans to the New World, and with the religious persecutions of the Protestant wars.

Older words for people who left the land of their birth for other homes implied an involuntary movement -- such as exile (Latin exul "banished person") or miserable flight -- such as wretch, which originally was the Old English word for "exile." The sense of "vile, despicable person" developed in Old English, reflecting the sorry state of the outcast, as presented in much of Anglo-Saxon verse (e.g. "The Wanderer," "The Seafarer"). An old German word for "misery" is Elend, from Old High German elilenti "sojourn in a foreign land, exile."

Moving to a better land was known in the ancient world, however, especially in Athens, at its peak. The Attic state had a separate legal and social class of "resident aliens," known as metics, from Greek metoikos, literally "one who has changed his residence," a compound of meta- "change" and -oikos "dwelling."

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Immigrate is from Latin imigrare "to remove, go into, move in," a compound of in- "in" and migrare "to move."

The in- is the same widespread word that is represented by native English in. The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root is *en-. Latin words with this prefix immigrated into English directly, and kept their spelling, but some also came by a roundabout path through Old French, where Latin in- often became en-. This accounts for pairs like enquire/inquire.

There was a native form of the prefix, which in West Saxon usually appeared as on- (e.g. Old English onliehtan "to enlighten"), and some verbs with it survived into Middle English (e.g. inwrite "to inscribe"), but all of them now seem to be extinct.

Another Proto-Indo-European root, reconstructed as *n- and meaning simply "not" also got into Latin as in-, proving English is not the only language that confuses its users with double-duty affixes (-s as a plural and a possessive, for instance). This ancient negating prefix was used more sensibly by the Anglo-Saxons as un-. It is, of course, a variant of the Proto-Indo-European base *ne- "not."

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Latin migrare "to move from one place to another," probably originally was *migwros, and comes from a Proto-Indo-European *meigw- (related to Greek ameibein "to change," which is in the front part of amphibian).

The ancient base is *mei- "to change, go, move," which is the root of a wide store of words in many languages. Some in English come up via Latin mutare "to change" and related mutabilis "changeable." These include mutable, mutant, immutable, transmutation (literally "a changing through"), permutation (literally "a thorough change"), and mutation.

Add the intensitive prefix com- to Latin mutare and you get commutare "to often change, to change altogether," which is the root of English commute.

A less obvious brother in this family (because it was deformed by the Anglo-Saxons, who borrowed it from Latin) is the verb molt (Old English (be)mutian), which simply is Latin mutare dressed up in English clothes. The same Latin word, filtered through French, came into English as the now-archaic mew "cage," from Old French mue "cage for hawks, especially when molting."

[Roads laid out in American suburban developments still sometimes are called _______ Mews, which in fast-growing early 19th century London was the term used for "street of former stables converted to human habitations." This first referred to a specific place, the Mewes, which were the royal stables at Charing Cross, built 1534 on the site of the former royal mews (attested from c.1394), where the king's hawks were kept.]

Beyond English, a list of *mei- descendants would include Sanskrit methati "changes, alternates, joins, meets;" Old Church Slavonic mite "alternately;" Czech mijim "to go by, pass by;" Polish mijam "avoid;" Gothic maidjan "to change;" and Hittite mutai- "to be changed into."

Latin also had meare "to pass," which is in the same family, and is the root of the back half of permeable. In Greek, the root also is represented by amoibe "change," the root of amoeba, so called in reference to its constantly changing shape.

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Another set of modern descendants of Proto-Indo-European *mei- "to change, go, move" is less easy to recognize because its sense has shifted. The ancient root word had prehistoric derivatives referring to the exchange of goods and services within a society as regulated by custom or law.

This branch of the family was represented in Latin by mutuus "done in exchange," which is the root of mutual and related words.

It also emerged in Latin as munus (plural munia) "service performed for the community, duty, work," also "public spectacle paid for by the magistrate, (gladiatorial) entertainment, gift." This was expanded (with the addition of capere "assume, take") into municipium "citizen, inhabitant of a free town," and has given us municipal.

Another descendant of Latin munus is immunity, from Latin immunitas, which originally meant "exemption from performing public service or charge." The medical sense "protection from disease" is a 19th century extension.

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Native English inherited Proto-Indo-European *mei- in both its "change" and "social customs" senses.

The latter is represented by the adjective mean "low-quality," which comes from Old English gemæne "common, public, general, universal, shared by all." The German cousin is from gemein, and the whole group has been traced back to a Proto-Indo-European compound adjective *ko-moin-i- "held in common," formed from the collective prefix *ko- "together" and *moi-n-, a suffixed form of *mei-.

That makes mean an exact counterpart of yet another *mei- word, common. Common comes from Latin communis "in common, public, general, shared by all or many," from Proto-Indo-European *ko-moin-i-.

The "change" aspect of *mei- turns up in mad, from Old English gemædde "out of one's mind" (usually implying also violent excitement), also "foolish." The notion is of "changed for the worse, abnormal."

Our Germanic ancestors, it seems, were conservative by nature and tended to regard "change" as a bad thing. Very few *mei- words express an essentially beneficial experience, while many are used for unpleasant situations, such as Old Saxon gimed "foolish," Old High German gimeit "foolish, vain, boastful," Gothic gamaiþs "crippled, wounded," and Old Norse meiða "to hurt, maim." We have this in common with the Iranians. Outside Germanic, Avestan (an ancient language of Persia) has related mitho "perverted, false."

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The term illegal immigrant first is recorded in English in 1939 in reference to Jews entering Palestine without authorization during the British mandate.

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Protest made its first recorded appearance in English in 1340 (in protestation), but the sense then was "solemn declaration." It comes from Latin protestari "to declare publicly, testify, protest." This is a compound of pro- "forth, before" and testari "testify," from testis "witness."

The original sense is preserved in the phrase to protest one's innocence. The meaning "statement of disapproval" is first recorded 1751; that of "expressing of dissent from, or rejection of, prevailing mores" is from 1953, in reference to the U.S. civil rights movement. The first record of protest march is from 1959, and protester "demonstrator, public opponent of the established order" is attested from 1960.

Latin testis comes from Proto-Indo-European *tris- "three," the root of the word for three in most modern Indo-European languages. The notion is of a "third person," as a "disinterested witness."

[The same concept gave us umpire, which is a faulty separation of a noumpere (heard as "an oumpere"), from Old French nonper "odd number, not even," in reference to a third person to arbitrate between two.]

Also from testis come testament, testate, intestate, testify, testimony, and, probably testicle. The last is from Latin testis "testicle," which usually is regarded as a special application of testis "witness," presumably because it "bears witness" to virility (cf. Greek parastates, literally "one that stands by," and French slang témoins, literally "witnesses").

More colorful suggested etymologies, often touted on the Internet, lack supporting evidence.