Thursday, July 07, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

This week's words were dragged, kicking and screaming, from the Technorati most popular searches for the week ending July 7.

Congratulations, London, chosen this week as the site of the 2012 Olympic games. Have fun with it.

Olympic is a reference to Olympia khora, a town and district in Elis in ancient Greece, where athletic contests in honor of Olympian Zeus were held in 776 B.C.E. and every four years thereafter. The modern Olympic Games are a revival, begun in 1896.

Greek Olympos is a name of unknown origin. The athletic site is not the same place as Mount Olympus, abode of the gods, which was in Thessaly. The name was given to several mountains in ancient Greece, each seemingly the highest in its district.

Hollywood's fascination with zombies continues apace. Zombie first turns up in English in 1871. It generally is considered to be a word of West African origin (perhaps identical with Kikongo zumbi "fetish" or Kimbundu nzambi "god"). In the Caribbean it originally was the name of a snake god, but later it took on the meaning "reanimated corpse" in voodoo cults.

But another notion derives zombie from a Louisiana creole word meaning "phantom, ghost," from Spanish sombra "shade, ghost."

Cool off rhetoric on court, Bush says. But the fight is on over the as-yet-unnamed person President Bush will select to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme as an adjective comes into English about 1523, via Middle French suprême, from Latin supremus "highest," the superlative form of superus "situated above," from thr adverb super "above, over, on the top (of), beyond, besides, in addition to." This is the Latin form of the Proto-Indo-European base *uper "over," which is the source of Sanskrit upari, Greek hyper, Old Irish for, and Old English ofer (Modern English over).

Court is a less straightforward word. It dates to early Middle English, from Old French curt, from Latin cortem, the accusative of cors (earlier cohors) meaning "enclosed yard," and, by extension (and perhaps by association with curia "sovereign's assembly"), "those assembled in the yard; company, cohort."

The legal meaning of court is attested from 1292; early assemblies for justice were overseen by the sovereign personally. The older sense of the word is preserved in courtly, the original sense of which is "having manners befitting a royal court." Courtship "paying court to a woman with intention of marriage" is attested from 1596.

Latin cohors is a compound of com- "together" and the stem hort-, which is related to hortus "garden, plot of ground." The English cognate of this is yard "ground around a house," from Old English geard "enclosure, garden, court, house, yard." If you were to fully Anglicize "Supreme Court" it might come out Over With-Yard.

Other cousins of the court family include German Garten "garden," the English verb gird (the basic notion is "enclosure"), Greek khortos "pasture," and Russian gorod, -grad "town, city."

A lot of Web traffic this week went to this story, with the headline "Critics Call Radio Hosts' Trip Propaganda Mission." It probably would surprise no one if "a contingent of conservative talk radio hosts" goes to Iraq on a fact-finding mission and comes back further convinced of what they already believe.

But are "critics" right to call this a "propaganda mission for the U.S. military and the Bush administration?"

Propaganda began life as a Church term; it is a Modern Latin word, short for Congregatio de Propaganda Fide "congregation for propagating the faith." This was the name of a committee of cardinals established in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV to supervise foreign missions in the wide world opened up by European exploration. Among its other projects, the Congregation ran the printing press in Rome, printing catechisms in many languages.

The word properly is the ablative feminine gerundive of Latin propagare. The modern, purely political, sense of propaganda dates from World War I, and was not originally pejorative. The negative connotations developed during World War II, with the specific use of propaganda by Nazis and communists.

Latin propagare was a verb that meant "multiply plants by layers, breed." It's a compound of the prefix pro- meaning "forth" and the root of pangere "to fasten." The Proto-Indo-European root of this has various related senses, "fix, join together, unite, make firm."

Among its many modern descendants are pact (from Latin pacisci "to covenant, to agree, make a treaty"); the noun pale "fence of pointed stakes" (now usually in the figurative phrase beyond the pale); the chemical name pectin (ultimately from Greek pektos "curdled, congealed"); compact, page "sheet of paper" (from Latin pagina "page, strip of papyrus fastened to others," from pangere "to fasten," usually said to be so called from the notion of individual sheets of paper "fastened" into a book).

Probably also in this family is patio, via Spanish from Provençal pati "untilled land, communal pasture," from Latin pactum "agreement."

A less obvious relative is pagan, from Late Latin paganus "pagan," which in classical Latin meant "villager, rustic, civilian," from pagus "rural district," originally "district limited by markers." Thus it is related to pangere "to fix, fasten."

The religious sense often is said to derive from conservative rural adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities; but the word in this sense predates that period in Church history, and it more likely is derived from the use of paganus in Roman military jargon for "civilian, incompetent soldier," which Christians (Tertullian, c.202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early Church (e.g. milites "soldier of Christ," etc.).

The discovery that such an important Church committee should share an ancestry with the main Latinate word for "worshipper of the pre-Christian religions" is one of the little delights of poking through the trash bins of languages.

"We are not going to engage in hotel journalism," said one of the women who has organized the tour.

Hotel dates from 1644, but it originally meant "public official residence." The modern sense of "an inn of the better sort" is first recorded in 1765. The source of the word is French hôtel, from Old French hostel "a lodging," from Medieval Latin hospitale "inn, large house." The Medieval Latin word branched off in two directions, one of which became hotel, the other hospital, which had acquired its special sense of "shelter for the needy" by the mid 13th century. The main modern sense of "institution for sick people" turns up by 1549.

The classical Latin source of all this is hospitem "guest, host," literally "lord of strangers" (*hosti-potis), from Proto-Indo-European *ghostis- "stranger" (source of Old English gæst "guest"). The figure of the stranger was shoruded in fear and ritual in the Indo-European world, and ambivalence and importance of strangers in the clannish culture of our distant ancestors is attested by this important root, which has yielded words for both "host" and "guest," and for both "friend" (Old Church Slavonic gosti) and "enemy" (Latin hostis).

Journalist "one whose work is to write or edit public journals or newspapers" is attested from 1693; journalism is not attested until much later, 1833. It was borrowed from French, where it is attested from 1781.

Journal in the sense of "personal diary" is recorded from 1610, again from French. But the older meaning of the word in English is "book of church services" (c.1355), from Anglo-French jurnal "a day," originally "daily" and ultimately from Late Latin diurnalis "daily."

This comes from classical Latin diurnus "daily," a compound of dies "day" and the adjective suffix -urnus, denoting time.

Dies "day" is from a Proto-Indo-European base that yielded "day" words in many modern languages (Welsh diw, Lithuanian diena, Russian den), but which literally meant "to shine." This connection makes it a relative of Greek delos "clear," and of god-words in Latin (deus) and Sanskrit (deva "god," literally "the shining one") and the Anglo-Saxon god Tig, whose name is enshrined in Tuesday.