Archive for etymology

The Conundrum Conundrum

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 19, 2013 by telescoper

Last week I attended a talk here at Sussex by Andrew Liddle who came back from Edinburgh especially fro the event (and not at all  in order to attend the Astronomy Centre Christmas Party, coincidentally later the same day). When he circulated the details of his talk, the title he gave was Cosmological Conundrums. Not being at all pedantic I naturally suggested that it should be Cosmological Conundra. Somewhat to my surprise he made that correction on the title slide of his talk. Later on, at the dinner, colleagues of mine argued that conundrum isn’t a Latin word so shouldn’t have a Latin plural; in much the same way that the plural of “bum” is not “ba”.

Actually the origin of the word “conundrum” is a bit of a puzzle in its own right. For one thing it certainly isn’t a word having an origin in Latin; the trusty Oxford English Dictionary says “Origin Lost” and Chambers says “Etymology Unknown”. Interestingly there are many variant spellings (such as quonundrum and quadundrum) and no less than 5 different definitions, given here in order of first recorded occurrence in written English (the first in 1596).

1. Applied abusively to a person. (? Pedant, crotchet-monger, or ninny.)

2.  A whim, crotchet, maggot, conceit

3.  A pun or word-play depending on similarity of sound in words of different meaning.

4. a. A riddle in the form of a question the answer to which involves a pun or play on words: called in 1769 conundrumical question. b. Any puzzling question or problem; an enigmatical statement.

5.  A thing that one is puzzled to name, a ‘what-d’ye-call-it’. rare.

It is 4b that represents the most common modern usage; that first came into English as late as 1790. The OED also argues quite strongly that 1 is not the first  use in English and probably doesn’t convey the original meaning; it’s just the first example of the word having been found in a written document.

So does the fact that “conundrum” is not a Latin word mean that its plural should be “conundrums” rather than “conundra”?

Maybe. But probably not. The best theory the OED gives for its etymology is “originating in some university joke, or as a parody of some Latin term of the schools, which would agree with its unfixed form in 17–18th cent”. I would argue that if conundrum is a made-up word meant to imitate or parody a Latin term then it should in fact be treated in the same way when forming its plural. The last thing anyone wants is a half-hearted parody and, in any case, I’m sure that the students who coined the term would have used the appropriate plural form.

Anyway, in the course of this investigation I discovered the word “crotchet-monger”, which I simply must try to get into my next public lecture.


Hosts, Guests, and Parasites

Posted in Literature with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2013 by telescoper

I just returned from my first experience of Court, at least in the sense of that word that applies to the University of Sussex. It was quite different to what I had imagined, especially because it included three research talks. One of them, by Dr Sara Crangle of the School of English was about the Engagement Diaries of Virginia Woolf (many of which have been acquired by the University). This talk began with a fascinating preamble focussed on a short quote from The Critic as Host by J. Hillis Miller. This revolved around the curious shared etymology of “host” and “guest” and their common relationship to “hostia” the latin word meaning a sacrifice or a victim. Being fascinated by the origin and evolution of words I thought I’d have a look for a bit more of the context so here is an extended discussion.

“Parasite” is one of those words which calls up its apparent “opposite.” It has no meaning without that counterpart. There is no parasite without its host. At the same time both word and counterword subdivide and reveal themselves each to be fissured already within themselves and to be, like Unheimlich, unheimlich, an example of a double antithetical word. Words in “para,” like words in “ana” have this as an intrinsic property, capability, or tendency. “Para” as a prefix in English (sometimes “par”) indicates alongside, near or beside, to the side of, alongside, beyond, wrongfully, harmfully, unfavorably, and among. The words in “para” form one branch of the tangled labyrinth of words using some form of the Indo-European root per, which is the “base of prepositions and pre-verbs with the basic meaning of ‘forward,’ ‘through,’ and a wide range of extended senses such as ‘in front of ,’ ‘before,’ ‘early,’ ‘first,’ ‘chief,’ ‘toward,’ ‘against,’ ‘near,’ ‘at,’ ‘around.’”

I said words in “para” are one branch of the labyrinth of “pers,” but it is easy to see that the branch is itself a miniature labyrinth. “Para” is an “uncanny” double antithetical prefix signifying at once proximity and distance, similarity and difference, interiority and exteriority, something at once inside a domestic economy and outside it, something simultaneously this side of the boundary line, threshold, or margin, and at the same time beyond it, equivalent in status and at the same time secondary or subsidiary, submissive, as of guest to host, slave to master. A thing in “para” is, moreover, not only simultaneously on both sides of the boundary line between inside and outside. It is also the boundary itself, the screen which is at once a permeable membrane connecting inside and outside, confusing them with one another, allowing the outside in, making the inside out, dividing them but also forming an ambiguous transition between one and the other. Though any given word in “para” may seem to choose unequivocally or univocally one of these possibilities, the other meanings are always there as a shimmering or wavering in the word which makes it refuse to stay still in a sentence, like a slightly alien guest within the syntactical closure where all the words are family friends together. Words in “para” include: parachute, paradigm, parasol, the French paravent (screen protecting against the wind), and parapluie (umbrella), paragon, paradox, parapet, parataxis, parapraxis, parabasis, paraphrase, paragraph, paraph, paralysis, paranoia, paraphernalia, parallel, parallax, parameter, parable, paresthesia, paramnesia, paregoric, parergon, paramorph, paramecium, Paraclete, paramedical, paralegal–and parasite.

“Parasite” comes from the Greek, parasitos, etymologically: “beside the grain,” para, beside (in this case) plus sitos, grain, food. “Sitology” is the science of foods, nutrition, and diet. “Parasite” was originally something positive, a fellow guest, someone sharing the food with you, there with you beside the grain. Later on, “parasite” came to mean a professional dinner guest, someone expert at cadging invitations without ever giving dinners in return. From this developed the two main modern meanings in English, the biological and the social. A parasite is (1) “Any organism that grows, feeds, and is sheltered on or in a different organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host”; (2) “A person who habitually takes advantage of the generosity of others without making any useful return.” To call a kind of criticism “parasitical” is, in either case, strong language.

A curious system of thought, or of language, or of social organization (in fact all three at once) is implicit in the word parasite. There is no parasite without a host. The host and the somewhat sinister or subversive parasite are fellow guests beside the food, sharing it. On the other hand, the host is himself the food, his substance consumed without recompense, as when one says, “He is eating me out of house and home.” The host may then become the host in another sense, not etymologically connected. The word “Host” is of course the name for the consecrated bread or wafer of the Eucharist, from Middle English oste, from Old French oiste, from Latin hostia, sacrifice, victim.

If the host is both eater and eaten, he also contains in himself the double antithetical relation of host and guest, guest in the bifold sense of friendly presence and alien invader. The words “host” and “guest” go back in fact to the same etymological root: ghos-ti, stranger, guest, host, properly “someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality.” The modern English word “host” in this alternative sense comes from the Middle English (h)oste, from Old French, host, guest, from Latin hospes (stem hospit-), guest, host, stranger. The “pes” or “pit” in the Latin words and in such modern English words as “hospital” and “hospitality” is from another root, pot, meaning “master.” The compound or bifurcated root ghos-pot meant “master of guests,” “ one who symbolizes the relationship of reciprocal hospitality,” as in the Slavic gospodic, Lord, sir, master. “Guest,” on the other hand, is from Middle English gest, from Old Norse gestr, from ghos-ti, the same root for “host.” A host is a host. The relation of household master offering hospitality to a guest and the guest receiving it, of host and parasite in the original sense of “fellow guest,” is inclosed within the word “host” itself. A host in the sense of a guest, moreover, is both a friendly visitor in the house and at the same time an alien presence who turns the home into a hotel, a neutral territory. Perhaps he is the first emissary of a host of enemies (from Latin hostis [stranger, enemy]), the first foot in the door, to be followed by a swarm of hostile strangers, to be met only by our own host, as the Christian deity is the Lord God of Hosts. The uncanny antithetical relation exists not only between pairs of words in this system, host and parasite, host and guest, but within each word in itself. It reforms itself in each polar opposite when that opposite is separated out, and it subverts or nullifies the apparently unequivocal relation of polarity which seems the conceptual scheme appropriate for thinking through the system. Each word in itself becomes separated by the strange logic of the “para,” membrane which divides inside from outside and yet joins them in a hymeneal bond, or allows an osmotic mixing, making the strangers friends, the distant near, the dissimilar similar, the Unheimlich heimlich, the homely homey, without, for all its closeness and similarity, ceasing to be strange, distant, dissimilar.


The Meaning of Research

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 8, 2012 by telescoper

An interesting email exchange yesterday evening led me to write this post in the hope of generating a bit of crowd sourcing.

The issue at hand concerns the vexed question of the etymology and original meaning of the word “research” (specifically in the context of scholarly enquiry). The point is that the latin prefix re- usually seems to imply repetition whereas the meaning we have for research nowadays is that something new is being sought.

My first thought was to do what I always do in such situations, which is reach for the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary wherein I found the following:

Etymology: Apparently < re- prefix + search n., after Middle French recerche (rare), Middle French, French recherche thorough investigation (1452; a1704 with spec. reference to investigation into intellectual or academic questions; 1815 in plural denoting scholarly research or the published results of this) … Compare Italian ricerca (1470). Compare slightly later research v.1

Interestingly, my latin dictionary gives a number of words for the verb form of research, such as “investigare”, most of which have recognisable English descendants, but there isn’t a word resembling “research”, or even “search”, so these must have been brought into French from some other source. The prefix re- was presumably added in line with the usual treatment of Latin words brought into French.

Most of the brain cells containing my knowledge of Latin died a long time ago, but I do recall from my school days that the prefix re- does not always mean “again” in that language, and alternative meanings have crept into other languages too. In particular, “re-” is sometimes used simply as an intensifier. I remember “resplendent” is derived from “resplendere” which means to shine (splendere) intensely, not to shine again. Likewise we have replete, which means extremely full, not full again.

This led me to my theory, henceforth named Theory A, that the french “recherche” and the italian “ricerca” originally meant “to search intensely, or with particular thoroughness” as in a scholar poring over documents (presumably including the Bible). Support for this idea can be found here where it says

1570s, “act of searching closely,” from M.Fr. recerche (1530s), from O.Fr. recercher “seek out, search closely,” from re-, intensive prefix, + cercher “to seek for” (see search). Meaning “scientific inquiry” is first attested 1630s…

Being a web source, one can’t attest to its reliability and the dates quoted to differ from the OED, but it shows that at least one other person in the world has the same interpretation as me! However, Iin the interest of balance I should also quote, for example,  this dissenting opinion which is also slightly at odds with the OED:

As per the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the word research is derived from the Middle French “recherche”, which means “to go about seeking”, the term itself being derived from the Old French term “recerchier” a compound word from “re-” + “cerchier”, or “sercher”, meaning ‘search’. The earliest recorded use of the term was in 1577.

My correspondent (and regular commenter on here), Anton, suggested an alternative theory which is based on an idea that can be traced back to Plato. This reminded me of the following explanation of the purpose of scholarship by the Venerable Jorgi in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose:

..the preservation of knowledge. Preservation, I say. Not search for… because there is no progress in the history of knowledge … merely a continuous and sublime recapitulation.

Plato indeed argued that true novelty and originality are impossible to achieve. In the Dialogues, Plato has Meno ask Socrates:

“How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know? “

And Socrates answers:

“I know what you want to say, Meno … that a man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows—since he knows it, there is no need to search—nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.”

Theory B then is that research has an original meaning derived from this strange (but apparently extremely influential) Platonic idea in which “re-” really does imply repetition.

We scientists think of the scientific method as a means of justifying and validating new ideas, not a method by which new ideas can be generated, but generating new ideas is essential if science can be really said to advance. As one article I read states puts it “We aim for new-search not re-search. It is new-search that advances our understanding of how the world works.”

My research suggests that it’s possible that research doesn’t really mean re-search anyway but I can’t say I have any evidence that convincingly favours Theory A over Theory B. Maybe this is where the blogosphere can help?

I know I have an eclectic bunch of readers so, although it’s unlikely that an expert in 16th Century French is among my subscribers, I wonder if anyone out there can think of any decisive evidence that might resolve this etymological conundrum? If so, please let me have your contributions through the comments box.

In the meantime let’s subject this to a poll…