or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Things Fall Apart

Friday, of course, was Canada Day: we had rented a car and were just driving around seeing the sights, and as usual, I was wondering aloud at practically everything that crossed my field of vision. Jim was helping: we passed a great many signs that consisted of a possessive noun and a common noun, and the response always had to be an echo of that Bugs Bunny cartoon in which he's aboard one of the three ships with Christopher Columbus on their way to discover America. Remember? The heaving seas make eating a bowl of soup a two-person affair, and finally Bugs walks away from the table and the bowl lands with a splat on the floor as he leaves the door marked CAPTAIN'S MESS. "If it's the captain's mess, let him clean it up," says the resourceful rabbit, and now whenever we see a sign reading JULIE'S KNITS, one of us is required to say, "If they're Julie's knits, let her clean them up." (We have to say it: it's in the marriage contract.)

So as I said, Jim was helping in my idle speculations. He knew that in Middle English, "mess", or "messe", meant "serve", as in the indispensable cookbook Pleyn Delit, which contains recipes directing the cook at last to "messe it forth", which is to say "serve it up". So he naturally asked, "are those two meanings related?" In other words, is the mess made by the soup on the floor the same as the captain's mess hall, which pretty obviously is related to "messe it forth"? And I said I'd have to look it up, and I did, and they are: all meanings of "mess" come from the same location. "Mess" originally stemmed from the Latin "mittere", "to place" (which I've already discussed here a bit): in terms of food, it clearly means "to set out" or "to serve", and from there it's no semantic distance at all to "the place where food is served" (the mess hall) and from there scarcely any further distance to "the state a mess hall is left in after a meal". All the modern meanings of "mess", including "idly spend time playing around with", are metaphorical extensions of this idea of messiness and waste, even as they get farther and farther from the source ("to mess around" meaning "to commit infidelity" is pretty far away from the idea of serving food).

Another question which popped into my mind after seeing the trillions of trees which are New Brunswick's natural bounty was, "where does 'deciduous' come from?" Where, indeed. It is, and this will come as no surprise, from the Latin, in this case from "decidere", "to fall off". Obviously, deciduous trees differ from conifers in that their leaves fall off every fall. All well and good, but what's more interesting is that the extraction of "decidere" is "de-", "from", plus "cadere", "to fall". Now: doesn't "de-cadere" look like something else to you? It immediately made me think of "decadent", and you bet that's related. To be decadent is to have fallen morally, and "decadent", naturally, is visually and semantically related to "decay", "to fall apart". So a deciduous tree is one which, unlike the evergreen, rots.


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