Thursday, December 29, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors."

[Special self-referential edition, spun off from thinking about this post.]

The language-roots of community have forking derivations. The source of the word is Latin communitatem (nominative communitas), which is from communis, an adjective meaning "in common, public, general, shared by all or many." Classical Latin Communitatem was merely a noun of quality meaning "fellowship, community of relations or feelings." But in Medieval Latin, probably under the influence of Christianity, it acquired a concrete meaning "a body of fellows or fellow-townsmen."

Latin communis is a compound, but it is an ancient one, and probably is older than Latin itself. In Proto-Indo-European, it would have been *ko-moin-i- "held in common," a compound adjective formed from *ko- "together" and *moi-n-, a suffixed form of the base *mei-.

In fact, the same Proto-Indo-European *ko-moin-i- that produced Latin communis got into Old English as gemæe "common, public, general, universal." The Anglo-Saxon word for what we would call community was gemænscipe "community, fellowship, union, common ownership."

The modern descendant of Old English gemæne is the adjective mean, which has deteriorated in sense (as has common, in some usages). The meaning "inferior, poor" emerged c.1300; that of "stingy, nasty" was first recorded in 1665; the weaker sense of "disobliging, pettily offensive" is recorded from 1839, originally in American slang.

[The other two means in English are not related. The verb meaning "to have the sense of" is Old English mænan "to mean, tell, say, complain," and is probably from the base *men- "to think." The noun meaning "that which is halfway between extremes" is from Latin medius, from the base *me- "between."]

The word common itself came into English before 1300, from Old French comun, from Latin communis. Almost from the beginning, it had a disparaging sense in English, in reference to women and criminals. Commons "the third estate of the English people as represented in Parliament" is recorded from 1377.

Common sense is a 14th century term, originally referring to the power of uniting mentally the impressions conveyed by the five physical senses, thus "ordinary understanding, without which one is foolish or insane" (it probably translates Latin sensus communis, and Greek koine aisthesis); the meaning "good sense" is from 1726.

Common pleas is a 13th century term, from Anglo-French communs plets referring to civil actions by one subject against another, as opposed to pleas of the crown. Common prayer is contrasted with private prayer.

There are several *mei- roots in Proto-Indo-European. Most linguists trace the root of community to the *mei- that means "to change, go, move." Add the "together" prefix to that, and you get "exchanged together," hence "shared by all," which is the sense of common and mean.

It is the root as well of Latin meare "to go, pass" (source of the second element in permeable); 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," misso "mutually;" and Hittite mutai- "to be changed into."

Among the modern English words that derive from this base are amoeba, a 19th century scientific name coined from Greek amoibe "change." The creature is so called for its constantly changing shape.

The Latin verb mutare "to change" also belongs here. It is the source of mutate and related words, but also, less obviously, molt, which evolved out of Old English (be)mutian "to exchange," an early borrowing from Latin mutare. The notion is of "exchanging" one set of feathers for another. The word evolved into Middle English mouten, and a parasitic -l- crept in in the late 16th century, on the model of fault, etc.

The same Latin word, coming up through French, became mew, the obsolete word meaning "cage" -- originally a cage for hawks when molting" -- from Old French muer "to molt," from Latin mutare.

Another Latin descendant of *mei- is mutuus "done in exchange," source of mutual and many other English words.

"Change" can go in many directions, and so this root seems to have branched widely. One notion was "changed for the worse," which is one meaning with which the root entered Germanic, as *ga-maid-az "changed (for the worse), abnormal," the source of Old English gemædde "out of one's mind," source of mad, as well as Old Saxon gimed "foolish," Old High German gimeit "foolish, vain, boastful," Gothic gamaiþs "crippled, wounded," and Old Norse meiða "to hurt, maim."

Mad emerged in Middle English to replace the more usual Old English word, wod. The sense of "beside oneself with excitement or enthusiasm" is attested from c.1330. The meaning "beside oneself with anger" is attested from c.1300, but it was deplored by Rev. John Witherspoon (1781) as an Americanism, and now competes in American English with angry for this sense.

The ancient Germans seem to have been pessimists about change generally, since another form of this root became Proto-Germanic *missjan "to go wrong," source of the prefix mis- and the verb miss "fail to hit" (Old English missan "fail to hit, fail in what was aimed at," Old Norse missa "to miss, to lack").

It's considered likely, too, that this ancient Germanic negative sense also underlays the words maim, mayhem and mangle, which came up into English via French. A similar negative sense of "change" in the same root evolved in ancient Persia, as Avestan mitho "perverted, false." Perhaps an aggressive sense of "exchange" is what turned this root into Proto-Slavic *misti "revenge," *mistiti "to take revenge," which is preserved in the proper name Mstislav, which literally means "vengeful fame."

Another branch off the root would be from "change" to "exchange," to "exchange of goods," and also "exchange of services within a society as regulated by custom or law."

This, many linguists presume, is what led to the group of seemingly related words in Latin the refer to public life, such as munia "public duties, duties, functions." Out of this, English got municipality and such words. A Roman municipum was a city whose citizens had the privileges of Roman citizens but was governed by its own laws.

It's also at the root of immunity, which originally meant "exempt from service or obligation." The medical sense "protection from disease" did not emerge until 1879.

If this connection is right, then community and municipality started in the same root, diverged, and arrived at the same place after 3,000 years or so of evolution.

But that's not quite certain. Latin munus, in addition to "service, duty, office," also had a sense of "gift." From the "gift" sense of munus come remuneration and munificence. It's quite possible that a word for "exchange" could come to mean "gift." But it's also possible, and some linguists say this is so, that these represent two separate roots.

Because there is another Proto-Indo-European base *mei-, which means "to bind."

It produced Greek mitra "headband, turban," source of the miter that means "a bishop's tall hat;" also mitos "warp thread" (preserved in modern English in mitosis and samite).

In Slavic, the root became Russian mir, which in addition to being the name of the Soviet space station means "peace, world," and also "village, community." The "peace" sense seems to be the oldest. The "community" or "village" was a source of peace and joy in ancient Slavic society, and linguists explain that the Old Slavic word miru "peace" later was "used in Christian terminology as a collective 'community of peace' " [Buck], translating Greek kosmos. Hence, its extension to "the known world, mankind."

From the same root comes Mithras, the name of the Persian god of light, from Indo-Iranian *mitram "contract," whence *mitras "contractual partner, friend," conceptualized as a god, or, according to Kent, first the epithet of a divinity and eventually his name.

This is related to Sanskrit Mitrah, a Vedic deity associated with Varuna. "His name is one of the earliest Indic words we possess, being found in clay tablets from Anatolia dating to about 1500 B.C." [Calvert Watkins].

How do all these sort out? Which Latin words connect to which roots? Is the "gift" the thing you "exchange," or is it the thing that "binds" the recipient to the giver? Is the "public office" the "gift" one gave to one's community, or perhaps it was that the honor of public office was a "gift" bestowed by the community on the individual? (One of the specific sense of Latin munus was "(gladiatorial) entertainment," which was generally sponsored by some rich or powerful citizen as a gift to the people). Is the "community" what is "exchanged back and forth" or what "binds" people together?

Munus, from Old Latin moenus "service, duty, burden," generally is taken to be from the *mei- that means "change, exchange, interchange." But the Latin etymologist Tucker says it is "more probably" from the other Proto-Indo-European root *mei- meaning "bind," so that munia = "obligations" and communis = "bound together."

In the end, we can't say whether community is a gift or a binding, or both. As Rousseau wrote, it is both. The individual gives up certain natural freedoms in exchange for certain advantages and protections.

What we do know is that a word from one of these two identical roots is the earliest written Indo-European word we have yet found: "contracts" for business and trade were very important to the Hittites, so much so that one of their words, based on the root for "to bind" was borrowed by their neighbors, the Assyrians, and it turns up in Assyrian inscriptions from 1900 B.C.E.