Monday, July 04, 2005

A great book to look through when you don’t know what to write is a dictionary of word origins. The one I happen to have (there may be better ones out there, I don’t know, I got this from the QPBC like 10 years ago) is the Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins, by John Ayto. I think he balances the academic with a sense of wit and interest—it isn’t comprehensive, but it does have depth. And he keeps the definitions straight, without obscuring the sense of human interest, that these words ride us for their medium through time.

One of my favorites is:

"Musk (14) Like the substance musk itself, the name musk came to Europe from the East. Its ultimate ancestor appears to have been Sanskrit muska ‘scrotum, testicle.’ This meant literally ‘little mouse’ (it was a diminutive form of Sanskrit mus, ‘mouse), and its metaphorical reapplication was due to a supposed similarity in shape between mice and testicles (a parallel inspiration gave rise to English muscle and mussel). The gland from which the male musk deer secretes musk was held to resemble a scrotum, and so Persian took the Sanskrit word for ‘scrotum’ over, as mhusk, and used it for ‘musk.’ It reached English via late Latin muscus."

I jotted down some notes from this entry when I first read it, intending to expand it into a poem, and then when I came back to the notes the next day, there was nothing I could do to them, so they became the poem.

One entry I have been trying since nearly then to get into a poem is:

"Porcelain [16] The bizarre history of the word porcelain leads us back to a pig’s vagina. It was originally applied to fine china in Italian, as porcellana. This meant literally ‘cowrie shell,’ and was used for the china in allusion to its shell-like sheen. Porcellana was a derivative of porcella ‘little sow,’ a diminutive form of porca ‘sow (to which English ‘pork’ is related), and was applied to cowrie shells because they supposedly resembled the external genitalia of female pigs. English acquired the word via French porcelaine."

The thing that gets me is that somehow the etymology here, combined with the fact that fine china is (I believe) bone china and that bone china is called bone china because it is made with bone ash (i.e., from pigs, is one kind of bone, I’m assuming here) is lovely and sad. I haven’t been getting anywhere with it though, it may be wholly a cerebral connection I’m making.

Most of our words are not traceable back to sexual organs, those are maybe the only two! The sexually-related ones do tend to be the most interesting, though.

Well, there’s at least one more. I read this one for the first time last night:

"Testament [13] Testament is one of a range of English words that go back to Latin testis ‘witness.’ This was derived from a prehistoric Indo-European bas *tris- ‘three,’ and so denoted etymologically a ‘third person,’ who was not party to an agreement and thus could be a disinterested witness to it. Other English members of the testis family include testicle [15] (which etymologically ‘bears witness’ to a man’s virility), testify [14], testimony [14], and the prefixed forms attest [16], contest, detest, intestate [14], and protest. The use of testament for ‘will’ was inspired by the notion of a ‘witnessed’ document. Its application to the two parts of the Bible arose from a mistranslation of Greek diatheke, which meant both ‘covenant’ and ‘will, testament.’ It was used for the ‘covenant’ between God and human beings, but Latin translators rendered it as if it were being used for ‘will’ rather than ‘covenant.’"

I particularly like to think that the Bible, which is in large part a record of patrilineage, is a spiritual ‘bearing witness’ to masculine virility. That is one of its primary purposes (and certainly one of its generative properties), after all.

Thanks for the tip on the John Ayto book, Stu! I just ordered it via interlibrary loan.

Great! Let me know how you find it, and if you run across any other worthwhile DoWOs.
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