Thursday, February 02, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"

The president gave his State of the Union address last night. I don't know why we make such a big deal out of these things. Has anyone else figured out the pattern yet? Once a year or so, there's a big speech that everyone pays attention to -- the inaugurals or the SOTUs (I notice savvy bloggers now are picking up Old Media's acronyms for this sort of thing like a suburban fourth grader with a new nuggest of gangsta slang). And President Bush says all the true and correct and noble and perceptive things that ought to be said, along with a few partisan points. And then the next day it's like it never happened. And the next 364 days bear little relation whatsoever to whatever was said.

Anyhow, let's make some etymology hay out of the aftermath. Here are some of the highlighted quotes:

“In this decisive year, you and I will make choices that determine both the future and the character of our country. We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom -- or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life. We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy -- or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity."

Choose is related to choice like lose is related to ... no, um, like cruise is related to ... OK, what gives?

Old English ceosan meant "to choose," also "to taste" and "to try." It's not difficult to sense how these ideas are related.

Old English ceosan was what modern grammarians call a class II strong verb; its past tense was ceas, and the past perfect (where we have chosen) was coren. This -s- to -z- to -r- shift is pretty regular in West Germanic. But most of the English examples in verb tenses have long since been leveled out and turned back to -z-, like chosen, which replaced coren by 1200.

A few vestiges of it can be dug up in the dictionary: dreary, originally an adjective derived from the past tense of a lost Anglo-Saxon verb dreosan "to drip, fall." And forlorn, which contains the old past perfect tense of lose (in Anglo-Saxon hymns, Latin perditionis is glossed by Old English forlorenisse). And frore "frosty, frozen," from the Old English past tense of freeze can be found in deliberately archaic poetry as recently as Keats, Shelley, Southey, and Mrs. Browning, all of whom probably got it from Milton, who seems to have taught himself Anglo-Saxon (and, I suspect, along the way got the inspiration for Satan's speech in the glorious opening scene of "Paradise Lost" from an obscure Old English poem on the fall of the angels).

But one result of ceosan-coren was that the Old English noun for "choice" was cyre, which doesn't sound much like ceosan. The medieval French, meanwhile, also had acquired this Germanic word for "to taste, to choose," either from their German neighbors or from the Franks who conquered Gaul after the collapse of Roman rule. In Old French, the verb was choisir, and not being bound by West Germanic phonetic rules, they turned it into a noun directly, and made chois.

When the French-speaking Normans conquered England in 1066 and set up rule there, they brought their language with them, and as the two languages merged the people sorted out the parallel sets of words. It is likely that choice won out over cyre because the imported word was closer to choose and people still felt a connection between the two ideas. By c.1300, choice was chosen and cyre was dead.

The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European base of all this is *geus-, a root that forms words for "taste" in Greek and Latin but mostly yielded words meaning "try" or "choose" in Germanic and Celtic. It is impossible to say which was original; the semantic development could have gone in either direction. And the meanings tended to switch back and forth over time: Old High German koston meant "try," but its modern German descendant, kosten, means "taste of." In the Indo-Iranian languages, the descendant words gravitate towards pleasure: Sanskrit jus- "enjoy, be pleased," Avestan zaosa- "pleasure," Old Persian dauš- "enjoy."

Choice thus is related to gusto (a word unlikely to be heard in a State of the Union Address), which was borrowed in the 17th century from Italian gusto "taste," which is from Latin gustus "a tasting," related to gustare "to taste" (which underlays disgust).

“To overcome dangers in our world, we must also take the offensive by encouraging economic progress, fighting disease, and spreading hope in hopeless lands.”

Speaking of forlorn, the typical place you encounter it nowadays is in the expression forlorn hope.

Hope, the verb, is Old English hopian "wish, expect, look forward (to something)." It is found in ancient languages around the low coast of the North Sea (Old Frisian hopia, Middle Dutch hopen -- High German hoffen "to hope" was borrowed from a Low German source). But it seems to have no connections to other words and is not found in other nearby languages. Hope, as ever, is elusive. The best anyone has come up with is a speculative connection to hop (v.) on the notion of "leaping in expectation," but that hardly is convincing.

The forlorn hope, however, is a false friend here. It is not hope at all. It's a 16th century folk etymologizing or partial translation of Dutch verloren hoop, in which hoop means "troop, band" -- literally "heap." The true sense of the whole phrase is "suicide mission." The phrase usually is used incorrectly in English, however, and the misuse has colored the sense of forlorn, which has shifted from "forsaken, abandoned" to "wretched, miserable."

“Abroad, our Nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal -- we seek the end of tyranny in our world ... the future security of America depends on it.”

Though tyranny and tyrant came into English in the Middle Ages with negative connotations of cruelty and unjustness, their original classical senses had more to do with illegitimate exercise of power.

Greek tyrannos (the modern English spelling with -t arose in Old French by analogy with preposition endings in -ant) meant "lord, master, sovereign, absolute ruler," a non-judgmental sense perhaps more evident in tyrannosaurus. When the Greeks applied it to specific rulers, they generally meant men who had set themselves up in royal authority over a city-state without having the right to it. "This is how the Greeks understood the word 'tyrant':" Rousseau wrote in "The Social Contract;" "they applied it indifferently to good and bad princes whose authority was not legitimate." True kings, however, could not be tyrants.

Greek tyrannos is not Indo-European, and it is believed to be a loan-word from a language of Asia Minor (probably Lydian). Linguists compare it to Etruscan Turan "mistress, lady," a surname of Venus. Legitimate ruler or not, most would agree that love can be a tyrant. Or tyranness in Spenser's coinage.

“In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores.”

Security is attested in English from 1432, from Latin securitas, from securus, which literally means "without care," thus "safe."

The two parts of it are se and cura. The first means "without, apart" and is also the source of the first element in secret. The second is the same cura that is the root of English cure.

“Here at home, America also has a great opportunity: We will build the prosperity of our country by strengthening our economic leadership in the world.”

Prosperity goes back to Latin prosperus "favorable, fortunate, prosperous," perhaps literally "agreeable to one's wishes," if it comes, as some think, from the Old Latin phrase pro spere "according to expectation."

The native Anglo-Saxon word for "prosperity" was ead which naturally was a common element in the formation of proper names -- Edgar ("prosperity-spear"), Edwin ("prosperity-friend"), Edmund ("prosperity-protector"), Edward ("prosperity-guard"), and so forth. But it did not prosper after the Norman conquest of England. Perhaps it is emblematic of the situation that the invader's word for prosperity was the one that stuck; they had greater cause to use it.

“…our greatness is not measured in power or luxuries, but by who we are and how we treat one another. So we strive to be a compassionate, decent, hopeful society.”

The noun meaning of luxury that Bush used here -- "something enjoyable or comfortable beyond life's necessities" -- is a fairly late development of the word, not attested before 1780. In Milton's day the noun meant "habit of indulgence in what is choice or costly," as well as retaining its original English sense of "lasciviousness, sinful self-indulgence" (1340). It was only in the 17th century that the word lost its pejorative taint sufficiently to be used in reference to creature comforts without regard to bad habits. And, as Bush's use indicates, it still has a faint taint about it.

The word came to English via Old French (luxurie) from Latin luxus "excess, extravagance, magnificence," which probably is a figurative use of the adjective luxus "dislocated," which is related to luctari "wrestle, strain."

That connects luxury, most remarkably, with reluctance (Latin reluctari "to struggle against") and ineluctable (literally "not able to be struggled out of").

“We must continue to lead the world in human talent and creativity. Our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hard-working, ambitious people -- and we are going to keep that edge.”

Fasten your seat belts, this is complicated. Talent meaning "inclination, disposition, will, desire" came into English at the end of the 13th century from Old French talent, from Medieval Latin talenta, the plural of talentum "inclination, leaning, will, desire." So far, so good.

But in classical Latin, talentum meant "balance, weight." It comes from Greek talanton "balance, weight, sum." In ancient times, in both Greek and Latin, this also was the name of a sum of money, since coin money was valued as the weight of the metal it contained. The Greek talent ranged from a little over 50 pounds (the Attic Talent) to over 85 pounds (the Aeginetan Talent). The Royal Babylonian Talent averaged 65 pounds. Even measured out in impure silver, a talent amounted to a small fortune.

Gradually talentum it came to be used as a word for "money" generally, and in Medieval Latin and the common Romanic languages this took on a metaphoric sense -- perhaps "money" as "what one desires." A medieval mystery play has the line "Yis, lord, I am at youre talent," and in other 15th century prose you can find lines such as "Grete talent and desyre she had to knowe hym." Even Swift, long after this use had passed from common currency, wrote, "It is the talent of human nature to run from one extreme to another."

The extension of the word to its main modern sense of "special natural ability, aptitude," (attested in English from c.1430) came about via the "parable of the talents" in Matthew xxv:14-30, in which a rather surly master distributes his money ("talents") to various slaves and rewards those who invest them and make him a profit from them but punishes those who merely save the money and then return it. Since the story was understood as a parable in Church teaching, the "talents" came to represent the "gifts of God" given to each with the expectation that the recipient will do something constructive with them.

This figurative sense also is found in modern French, Spanish, and Italian.

The root of Greek talanton is Proto-Indo-European *tel-, *tol- "to bear, carry," which also is found in tolerate, literally "to bear (it)."

Back to the speech. Everyone seems to agree this is the money quote:

“America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world .... The best way to break this addiction is through technology.”

You wouldn't have used this word in this sense, with reference to a substance, before about 1914. The association of addiction and narcotics (originally opium and morphine) sprang up in the early 20th century. It grew out of an earlier sense of addicted as "given over or awarded to someone or some practice." Etymologically, the way we use the word now really is "self-addicted," since the original of the word is an adjective meaning "delivered, devoted."

It comes from Latin addicere "to deliver, yield, devote," a compound of ad- "to" and dicere "to say, declare" (source of dictionary, dictator, etc.). But dicere also could mean "to adjudge, allot," and this seems to be the primary sense in this word.

The Proto-Indo-European root of Latin dicere is *deik- "to point out." As it wound its way up through Germanic it came out in English as teach.

“The American economy is pre-eminent -- but we cannot afford to be complacent. In a dynamic world economy, we are seeing new competitors like China and India.”

Complacent, like addicted, really should be self-complacent the way we use it. The original sense of complacence is merely "satisfaction, pleasure," not "pleased with oneself."

The word comes from Latin complacere "to be very pleasing." The Latin com- prefix usually means "together with," but in some cases, including here, it was used as a mere intensifier, without a specific meaning. The rest of the word is placere "to please, to be acceptable, be liked, be approved," the source of please.