Thursday, December 01, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

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

Under the weather with a cold, so I thought I'd coast through with etymologies based on some movie titles out now. One is "Pride and Prejudice," and I noticed Jane Austen's birthday is approaching (Dec. 16, 1775), so I decided to make a special "Stone Cold" Jane Austen edition out of this.

I appreciate Jane's genius without feeling much personal enthusiasm for it. Just a guy thing, I guess. Give me the sado-masochistic sensual weirdness of Emily Brontë anyday. I read "Pride and Prejudice," but I probably won't see the movie.

That's no reflection on Austen. But I've seen enough red carpet photos of Kiera Knightley to know that, no matter how period-proper her empire-waist gowns are, I'll be looking at her and thinking, "she's got a navel ring under there," and I'll probably start looking for a slight protrusion in the fabric, which will sort of spoil it all, especially because I fucking hate navel rings as an abomination against the natural perfection of the female form.

Ah, where was I? Goddamn cold medicine. I'm doubly blessed because, even though I'm married, I'm not going to get dragged to "Pride and Prejudice." My wife is a devotee of the mini-series version, and swears nothing could be as good. And she has excellent taste. And no navel rings.

I still wish the Muppets would take a crack at "Pride and Prejudice," though.

Most Indo-European languages use the same word for "proud" in its good and bad senses, but in many the bad sense seems to be the earlier one. The usual way to form the word is with some compound of words for "over" or "high" and words for "heart," "mood," "thought," or "appearance;" e.g. Greek hyperephanos, literally "over-appearing," or Gothic hauhþuhts, literally "high-conscience."

Old English had such words, too -- ofermodig "over-moody" ("mood" in Anglo-Saxon was a much more potent word than presently) and heahheort ("high-heart"), to name two.

It also had, in late Old English, pryto, the ancestor of modern pride. Late Old English prud, prute "proud" probably is borrowed from Old French prud, an oblique case of the adjective prouz, which meant "brave, valiant."

This opens the door to a juicy bit of historical speculation. The sense of "have an exaggerated high opinion of oneself" was not in the Old French word. But its emergence in England may reflect the Anglo-Saxons' private opinion of the Norman knights who called themselves proud.

The Vikings seem to have borrowed the same French word (Old Norse pruðr), but among them it had only the positive sense "brave, gallant, magnificent, stately." But then the Vikings didn't spend as much time entertaining the French as the Anglo-Saxons did.

But before you get too married to that, realize there is a group of "pride" words in the Romance languages -- among them French orgueil, Italian orgoglio, Spanish orgullo -- that clearly are borrowings from Germanic languages (Anglo-Saxon is one), where they had purely positive senses (cf. Old High German urgol "distinguished").

It seems "pride" is how the bearing of one's national neighbors strikes you when they think they're putting their best feet forward.

Words for "proud" in other Indo-European languages sometimes reflect a physical sense of being swollen or puffed up, such as Welsh balch, probably from a root meaning "to swell," and Modern Greek kamari, from ancient Greek kamarou "furnish with a vault or arched cover" (related to camera), with a sense evolution via "make an arch," to "puff out the chest," to "be puffed up." Compare English slang chesty.

As for the ultimate source of proud, Old French prouz is from Late Latin prode "advantageous, profitable," from classical Latin prodesse "be useful," a compound of pro- "before" and esse "to be."

This esse is the same word that's at the root of essence (from an abstract noun formed by the Romans in imitation of Greek ousia), and its ultimate source is the ancient Proto-Indo-European "s-root" meaning "to be."

So much for pride; what of prejudice?

Again, it's a word from Latin via French. It turns up in English before 1300, from Old French prejudice, from Medieval Latin prejudicium, from classical Latin præjudicium, which literally means "prior judgment." It's a compound of præ- "before" and judicium "judgment."

Thus the etymological notion of the word is of a "preconceived opinion." Prejudice often is paired nowadays with discrimination in the definition "intollerance of other races," but they're an odd couple. The one means "to make a prior judgment," while the other means "to separate," and in its negative sense tends to imply a lack of judgment altogether.

"It especially annoys me when racists are accused of 'discrimination.' The ability to discriminate is a precious facility; by judging all members of one 'race' to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination." [Christopher Hitchens]

Discriminate is Latin discriminare "to divide." The adverse (usually racial) sense of discriminate is first recorded in 1866, in American English, during the days of post-Civil War Reconstruction. The older, positive sense of the word remains in the adjective discriminating meaning "possessing discernment."

Two years before Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen published Sense and Sensibility (1811). Among that book's many claims to fame is the first appearance in print (as far as anyone can determine) of the words irrepressible and stylish.

The noun sense arrived in English circa 1400, with its double meaning "faculty of perception" and also "meaning or interpretation" (especially of Holy Scripture), from Old French sens, from Latin sensus "perception, feeling, undertaking, meaning."

This derives from the verb sentire, which meant "to perceive, feel, know," but this probably was a figurative use of a literal meaning "to find one's way." That would connect the Latin words with the Proto-Indo-European base *sent- "to go" (cf. Old High German sinnan "to go, travel, strive after, have in mind, perceive," German Sinn "sense, mind;" Old English sið "way, journey;" Old Irish set, Welsh hynt "way").

The application of sense to any one of the external or outward senses (touch, sight, hearing, etc.) first is recorded in 1526. The division of these into five, however, is not universally agreed upon.

"Hornkostel cites a Negro tribe that has a separate word for seeing, but employs a common term for hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching." [A.G. Engstrom, "Philological Quarterly," XXV, 1946]

Sensibility meaning "capacity for refined emotion" is first recorded in 1756, which makes it only about a generation older than Jane Austen. Its root, sensible, is much older, though, being known from Chaucer's day, with a meaning "perceptible to the senses." Expanded definitions piled on in later centuries: "aware, cognizant (of something)" is recorded from c.1412; "having good sense, reasonable" is first recorded c.1530. The use of sensible in reference to clothes, shoes, etc., meaning "practical rather than fashionable" is attested from 1855, so Jane probably didn't have that in mind when she wrote her book.

The word comes from Latin sensibilis "having feeling, perceptible by the senses," which ties back into sensus, the root of sense.

Skipping over Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and Northanger Abbey (1818) as titles offering scant material for etymologizing, we come to the posthumous Persuasion (1818), which brings up an interesting word.

Persuasion, meaning "the action of inducing (someone) to believe (something)," came into English by 1382, via Old French, from Latin persuasionem "a convincing, persuading," from the verb persuadere.

This is a compound in which the per- means "thoroughly, strongly" and the root suadere means "to urge, persuade."

The Latin word also came up to Modern English in dissuade and suasion. It is related to Latin suavis "sweet."

The Proto-Indo-European root here is *swad- meaning literally "sweet." It can be traced in Sanskrit svadus "sweet;" and in Greek hedys "sweet, pleasant, agreeable," and hedone "pleasure." The Germanic branch of the root is, of course, the source of sweet (Old English swete "pleasing to the senses, mind or feelings," as well as Swedish söt, Danish sød, Dutch zoet, and German süß.

To persuade, therefore, is to "make something pleasant to (someone)." All true persuasion is, at root, a matter of sugar-coating.