Expert: Etymological Discourse

Expert is a wonderful word to start with when trying yet again to get into the swing of blogging. It is also a very timely one, but about that later. First, etymology.

Like a perhaps surprisingly large number of words in the English language expert has come to us from Latin via French, and as such is one of the many imports which came with the Norman conquest of 1066. In Old French the word had much the same meaning as it has today  – “experienced, practised, skilled” – which shows unusually little change for a word which has been around for over 600 years. The original Latin root, however, was a little different. Expert originates from the Latin verb experiri, meaning “to try, to test”, which links well to the well-known fact that becoming an expert requires a significant amount of perseverance: trying over and over and over until one succeeds; trying out and testing different methods and techniques. It is often the case that such courses of word change have a certain logic to them which echoes the logic of common wisdom; I am of the belief that observing such changes can help reveal things about the thinking processes of different cultures, and perhaps even common thinking patterns within humanity as a whole.

As for why I found this prompt particularly relevant today relates directly to what I was doing before I decided to take a brief break: learning to touch type. Although there had been a touch typing club at my school, I never considered attending it as I did not have an inkling of how useful it could be. However, now that I will be going off to University in a month I decided that touch typing would be a useful skill as it would, for example, allow me to type notes while watching the lecturer and/or their presentation. It certainly requires a lot of attempts; hopefully a month will be enough to make me an expert typist.



Paint and Cuts: Etymological Discourse

One of my Latin teachers used to say that “verbs are the root of all evil” so that we’d remember to learn, first and foremost, verbs and their forms. The phrase could also, jokingly, be applied to the etymology of the word paint, as the verb significantly predates the noun.

And what a varied family tree does the verb have! Through Old French peintier (to paint), which itself formed from an older form of the verb,  peindre. This came from the Latin pingere, which had the much wider meaning of “to paint, stain, embroider, tattoo”, thus providing us with a classic example of semantic narrowing – the process in which, over time, the meaning of a word becomes more specific.

Now things get really interesting. Most sources, such as the OED, stop at this stage, but the Online Etymology Dictionary goes on to suggest that pingere came from the Proto-Indo-European root *peik-, meaning “to cut”. An eccentric suggestion, it must be said, but one not without evidence. The suggested evolution of meaning is “to decorate with cut marks” to “to decorate” to “to decorate with colour”, and it can be traced through other derivatives of this PIE root which have retained some meaning from each stage. The Sanskrit pimsati (hews, cuts, carves, adorns) suggests the transition from “to cut” to “to decorate with cuts”, while the Sanskrit pesalah (adorned, decorated, lovely) provides some evidence for the original root to have held the meaning of just “to decorate”. Finally, we see the Old Church Slavonic pegu and the Greek poikilos, both meaning “variegated” providing the link to colour.

Although I am sure that the final link to PIE is subject to great debate, it shows how wonderfully interlinked and interwoven human language is across the globe and that languages of different groups have always influenced one another, as have the cultures, and thus it is a natural, beautiful process which ought to be embraced, not slowed.


Nescio ut hoc hodie scribam.

Stubbornness and Persistence: Etymological Discourse

Stubborn, interestingly, has the shortest etymology of all of the Daily Post’s prompt words that I’ve written about thus far: the earliest mention of it that is found is in Middle English, where it is in the form stiborn. There isn’t much more to say on the subject.

As for stubborness itself, it is a rather interesting concept. The word itself has negative connotations, whereas something like persistence is viewed far more positively. And like many other similar pairs of words, there is always a debate around where the positive persistence turns into the negative stubborness.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is the fact that to say that someone is “stubborn” about something is to imply that they are ignoring good reasons to change their behaviour; however that is a rather artificial division as what may seem as a good reason for one person is not necessarily the same case for another.

A more cynically disposed person may argue that it is not reality which defines whether a person is stubborn or persistent, but the view generally held of the person by others. Anything from a newspaper article to a textbook (although they often try to be objective) will use either term depending on whether they wish to portray a character in a positive or negative light. The two words are just another example of how the pen may be mightier than the sword.

But what of the etymology of “persistent”?

The adjective appeared in the 18th century, whereas the noun persistence was around a little longer, since the 16th. It originated from Middle French persistance, which in turn came from the Latin persistens.


Diligentia et cervicatas asinum et doctum definient.


Praise, price and pretty: Etymological Discourse

I must say the Daily Post’s prompts are very thought-provoking: first “craving“, now “praise“. And like before, I shall first and foremost consider its etymology.

Google is the source of my information today as they rather helpfully provided the following timeline: from Latin pretium (price) via Late Latin pretiare to Old French preisier (to prize or praise), and from there into Middle English praisePretium happened to be on my vocabulary list for Latin, and I was glad to see it come up again – it was like greeting an old friend.

Due to the influence of Latin on English via Old French brought over by the invasion of 1066, it was quite common to remember Latin vocabulary by associating it with English derivatives, such as mare (sea) and marinerPretium I remembered by associating it with pretty as, rather helpfully, to pay a pretty price is a relatively well-known idiom in English and helped me forge the mental link between pretium and price. Etymologically though, I now know that pretty and pretium have nothing to do with each other, as the former actually derives from the Old English prættig, meaning cunning, skilful, artful, which in turn comes from the Proto-Germanic *pratt- (another thing I have learned today is that Proto-Germanic has been, at least partially, reconstructed).

If all you were looking for is factual information, you may wish to stop here. What follows is far more subjective: a brief discourse on my own thoughts about praise.

Praise is certainly something all of us crave, and a lack of it can be dangerous to people’s mental health as it lowers one’s self esteem. I always endeavour to praise others and their work if I can – with the epidemic of mental ill-health raging through the first-world population, it’s the least I can do. Unfortunately, it is the case that many do not realise that problems often occur due to cumulative little things: a few too many harsh words or sleepless nights greatly increase one’s risk of mental issues. That is why the folk wisdom of “if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all” is a very good principle to live by.

Personally, I find no praise greater than when it concerns something I have made myself; it brings me incredible happiness and leaves wonderful, warm memories.


Pretium et avaritia miseria mundi sunt.

Price and greed are the woe of the world.

Craving Knowledge and a bit of Etymology

Craving is the word prompt kindly provided by the Daily Post yesterday, so let us first consider its etymology.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that it is of Germanic origin, appearing as craifen (to ask, implore, demand by right) in Old English. A fairly bog-standard origin story, if not for the fact that it is also related to the Danish kræve and the Swedish kräva, through Old Germanic (I never knew that Old Germanic had any influence on that language group). Seems like I need to look a little more into those languages.

The above was what I had completed as a draft yesterday, but unfortunately didn’t have time to go back and add to as my day had been rather busy. Hopefully I shall be able to produce a little more today.


facienda multior res, minoris tempi.

The more things to be done, the less time.


Musing on Muses and Etymology

Muse was the first word I saw on my feed this morning, courtesy of The Daily Post. I think this daily prompt idea is wonderful, and to make it even better, this one happened to be a particularly interesting one for me.

My first association with the word were the Muses of Greek mythology (later adopted by Romans), which is unsurprising considering that I’ve studied Latin for the last 6 years and have a fairly good grounding in Classical mythology. Then the linguaphile in me piped up, pointing out that “muse” also has a second meaning: to ponder on something, or as the OED puts it –

1 Be absorbed in thought:he was musing on the problems he faced

     1.1 Say to oneself in a thoughtful manner:‘I think I’ve seen him somewhere before,’ mused Rachel

     1.2 (muse on) Gaze thoughtfully at:the sergeant stood, his eyes musing on the pretty police constable
(thank you Oxford English Dictionary!)
Deciding to combine both, I began to consider what I already knew about muses and musing.
Of musing I knew only the definition (seen above), but of muses I’d heard a bit more. Being associated with the arts, they were often invoked by those who practised them: poets and writers, artists, etc. Not only was this done in Classical times but also later, when the Renaissance brought the ancient Greek and Roman back into fashion, for example in the works of Pushkin. The frequency and widespread nature of such invocations lead to some interesting linguistic and literary phenomena: firstly, “muse” obtained a second, metaphorical meaning as a term for someone (or, more rarely, something) who inspired an artist or writer; secondly, it could be used in clever ways to subvert expectations and thus set the mood in pieces of text.
A wonderful example of this is in Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, where instead of appealing to the Muses to help him describe the Underworld, he instead calls on Chaos and Phlegethon:
Di, quibus imperium est animarum, umbraeque silentes,
et Chaos, et Phlegethon, loca nocte tacentia late,
sit mihi fas audita loqui; sit numine vestro
pandere res alta terra et caligine mersas!
(Quote taken from Perseus)
Which translates (roughly) to:
O gods, in whose domain are souls, silent shadows,
and Chaos, and Phlegethon, the broad places of the silent night,
may you permit me to tell what I have heard; may your divinity
reveal things buried in the fog and deep earth!
This helps make the point that the Underworld is a different, alien place where the muses have no power, and darker entities reign supreme.
A bit of surface research, however, revealed a few more things to add into my bank of knowledge. “Green muse”, for example, is metonymic to absinthe, although this use is rare. I was also surprised to find out that the noun “muse” and the verb have slightly different etymologies. It was never really a question I had considered, but as inspiration and thinking are vaguely related as to do with the human mind it never occurred that the origins of the words could be quite different. Whereas the noun “muse” can be traced through French back to Latin to Ancient Greek μονσα (mousa), the verb “to muse” goes back to Old French muser (to meditate, think about), and possibly Medieval Latin, but from there the trail is cold.
On the other hand, Wikipedia suggests that μονσα is originally derived from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) stem *men-, which means “think”, and which underwent an o-grade ablaut (i.e. the e changed to an o). Therefore the Old French muser which went on to become the English to muse may also have come from this PIE stem, making the verb and the noun vaguely related – great-great-great cousins, so to speak.
As for the mythological muses themselves, I finally found out why I was never sure about their number: different authors recorded different ones, as well as describing different and contradictory familial ties to other gods! Most common, however, are depictions of 9 muses, of whom there is a wonderful list on Wikipedia along with their domains and associated symbols. It was also interesting to find out that the Greek μονσα referred not just to the goddesses but also to the arts in general, and that the word “museum” is originally from the Greek μονσειοη (mouseion), a place where the muses were worshipped. It also, although obvious, had never occurred to me that the word “music” also comes from the muses, while the words “mind”, “mental”, “memory” and “mantra” all also come from the same PIE stem *men-.
All that is left to me now is to await the next prompt word tomorrow and see what new knowledge that brings me.
Musa, me ad humanitatem ducat!
O muse, may you lead me to culture/kindness!