or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, September 26, 2005


I'm back. Someone must have missed me, right?

So it was fall and time for a change, and so I decided to become either 10% crankier or 10% less cranky. I tried the more-cranky option first and it just wasn't me; I wrote an intemperate piece filled with cuss words, mostly the f-bomb a half-dozen times, and I just couldn't bring myself to post it. Clearly I'm not the curmudgeon I thought I was.

However, I have been cussing quite a bit about insects. It's nearly the end of September; aren't the little bastards supposed to have died off by now? And yet we're still plagued by flies, and mosquitoes and fleas are still much in evidence. And naturally this started me thinking about buggy words.

"Insect" should have been obvious to me, yet it wasn't, because I wasn't thinking like an entomologist (or an etymologist); it's so unitary a word that I couldn't dissect it, but dissect it we will. It's made from two parts: the simple intensifier in- and "-sect", from the Latin "secare", "to cut". And what it is that's cut up? The insect's body itself, which is segmented into head, thorax, and abdomen--think of an ant, or a wasp with its tiny waist. (I have a source that says "insect" is from "not cut", and "in-" is indeed a prefix meaning "not"; however, the intensifier clearly serves the meaning better, since the insectile body is divided into obvious segments.) "Secare" is the root of a great many other English words, such as two words I've already used, "dissect" ("to cut apart") and "segment", as well as "sector" (originally "cutter", now the thing the cutter has cut) and the cutting implements "sickle" and "scythe". "Sect" looks for all the world as if it ought to belong to the family, and why shouldn't it? A sect is surely something that has cut itself off from a mainstream religion. It isn't, though; it's from Latin "sequi", "to follow", and therefore a sect is a band of followers--once followers of a particular school of thought, but nowadays a religion with no political power.

Guess which language "bug" is from? If you said Latin, you're wrong. Or right. Nobody knows where it comes from. I suppose it's another of those words that just gets spontaneously generated within a language, one that doesn't necessarily fill a desperate need--we already have plenty of words for what my grandmother called "crawlers"--but that happens anyway.

You just know from looking at it that "vermin" is Latin. It feels Latin. It's from "vermis", "worm", which also shows up in "vermicelli", the pasta shaped like little worms. "Vermin" is also the source of a distorted but still recognizably related "varmint".


Blogger Frank said...

*I* missed you, Pyramus! I love you, even if you're not as curmudgeonly as you thought! *LOL*

"Worm" a very interesting word because it's a word with deep roots in Indo-European. Both Latin "vermin" and Germanic "wurm" (where our English "worm" comes from most directly) share a common IE root. It's funny, to me, that the IE root for creepy-crawling things would persist so long.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005 3:36:00 AM  
Blogger Tony Pius said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005 4:53:00 PM  
Blogger Tony Pius said...

(Man, I can't even make a blog comment correctly today.)

Thank God you're back. This week has sufficiently jumped the rails already.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005 4:54:00 PM  

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