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by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1989. Etymology. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, June:8–10.

Etymology is a word that comes from the Greek etymon, which means the literal meaning of a word according to its origin; hence, etymology is the study of the origin and meaning of words. Which brings us to the subject of this month's discursive. One caveat (see below): I've taken a few liberties with the dictionary for the sake of levity.

Caveat emptor: from the Latin "let the buyer beware". It is interesting to note that the ancient shopper was seemingly in as much need of "wariness" when purchasing ancient "wares" as the modern shopper is today. A caveat in general is a warning against something, as in the common Sault Ste. Marie sign cave canem (beware of dog).

Syntax: In a technical sense, syntax is why I get paid inrageous (the little known antonym for outrageous) sums to work as an editor. In one of those little bits of injustice that life is so famous for, syntax is what I get paid for doing, but it's also what I pay whenever I buy a chocolate bar (my favorite sin) or order a beer at another sort of bar. The word syntactic is derived from syntax and, as near as I can figure, is the strategy one adopts in an effort to avoid paying one's syntax.

Habeus corpus (ad subjiciendum): This Latin phrase means, literally, that you should "show me the body". In law, presenting a writ of habeus corpus is the way a defense attorney insists that the judge demonstrate that the court has a good reason to want you detained. In short, this legal document is intended to give us citizens the right to be not held in prison unless there's a good reason to suspect that we've done something. [I got this one quite dramatically wrong in my original essay. Herein, you see the amended version.—GH]

Parole: a word which comes from the French word of the same spelling, and which is likely to have been derived from the verb parler, "to speak". In French, parole means to give one's word on something, or to express polite astonishment (as in the phrase Ma parole!... "My word!"). In the modern English context, parole means to let a criminal loose after he has served a portion of his sentence and has apparently repented. This follows from the tradition of the captured gentleman-soldier of the Renaissance, who would give his word of honor to take no further action against his captor in exchange for being released from a prisoner-of-war camp. Of course, such a tradition depended on the parole-giver being a man of honor. Hence the other meaning, of astonishment, when a paroled criminal actually honors their word.

Sabotage: a word that comes from the French sabot, which was a wooden shoe such as Dutch children are always depicted to be wearing. During the industrial revolution, discontented workers who feared that they might lose their jobs to the new technologies decided to take measures into their own hands. To destroy the machinery that was putting them out of work, legend says they took their wooden shoes (which was all they could afford to wear) and threw them into the cogs and gears of the machinery, with predictable results. These saboteurs presumably failed in their efforts to "sabotage" things once and for all, as the industrial revolution doesn't even seem to have slowed perceptibly. (For trivia buffs, one of the most famous of such saboteurs was Ned Ludd, from whom we get the word "Luddite" to denote anyone afraid of technological progress.) It is interesting to note that although the modern TV has few if any moving parts, it can still be efficiently sabotaged by traditional methods; however, this is usually the result of one's favorite team losing in extra innings, or of one's least favorite politician being particularly annoying.

Sinister: Taken from the Latin word of the same spelling, sinister implies "from the left-hand side" and, by means of the magic of time, has come to mean the inauspicious, unlucky, misleading, or ominous. It's commonly believed that this arose from the distrust of "normal" people for anyone different from themselves... even different in such a seemingly innocent fashion as the hand they used to write with. As an interesting side observation, consider that two of the oldest written languages still in existence, Hebrew and Chinese, are written from right to left rather than left to right, as in English and most other modern languages. This is explained, perhaps, by the observation that a left-handed writer, using ancient writing technology (i.e., a quill pen, ink, and a blotter) would naturally write from right to left, giving the ink a chance to dry rather than resting their hand on the freshly written characters. What this implies about the sinister nature of the ancient inventors of these two languages, and the less sinister modern writer, I leave to your conjecture. (As a note, however, I am profoundly right-handed... not a sinister bone in my body. Of course, since I write mostly using a word processor, which goes most emphatically from left to right, you'll have to take this one on faith.)

Occult: Taken from the Latin occultus, meaning "covered up" (hidden), occult has acquired the meaning of something related to supernatural agencies (which would, predictably, be hidden)... thus, the modern obsession with the occult doesn't mean our tendencty to use science to reveal the hidden facts of nature, but rather, implies an obsession with magic, demonology, and the like. It's interesting to note that early Christianity was an occult cult, which is only to say that early Christians were forced to hide from persecution. Perhaps we should ponder the fact that something need not be sinister simply because it is hidden...

Predecessor: Literally, this means the one who just died... which adds an interesting slant to the more traditional meaning of "the guy who held the job before you". Did you have to kill him to get the job? Or was he "predeceased", and the reason that you got the job is that his performance deteriorated so much that he was no longer even fit for the public service? (I can now say this with no fear of being accused of unfair stereotyping... as a member of the public service, I'm permitted to make jokes at my own expense. This follows the rule of thumb that you are no longer a bigot if you make racial jokes about your own racial group. Hmmm... there's probably an essay or two in that thought.)

Civil: Taken from the Latin civilis, this means "of or relating to the state or its citizenry". Hence, government employees used to be members of the civil service. I say "used to" because we are now classed as "public service" employees. Civil also means "courteous", as in the phrase "Keep a civil tongue in your head, you ruffian!" One wonders if our new class name means that we no longer have to be civil in our relations with the public. Could it be that someone in Ottawa actually has a subtle sense of humor? (Naw! Probably just coincidence.)

In case I've left you wondering, this sort of pondering isn't the only thing editors and writers do in their spare time. Sometimes we actually just read something without criticizing it.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved