or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Hunger

Here's a paragraph from an AP wire story:

After seeing a swarm of ravenous mosquitoes around his storm-battered home in Vidor, Harry Smith and his family decided to leave. They hitchhiked 10 miles to an emergency staging area and got on a bus to San Antonio.

No, there's nothing wrong with it, no point of grammar to illustrate or non-existent copy editor to assail. I just wanted to show where this stuff comes from. I don't pace the room and think, "Damn; I've got to write something for that miserable blog! Let's just open the dictionary." Instead, I'll be reading, something will grab my attention, and I'll think, "Hmmm." And so it was with this article and the word "ravenous". Specifically, 1) where does it come from?, 2) why does it mean "famished"?, and 3) is it related to "raven" the bird and/or "ravine" the gully? And then, for good measure, 4) where does "famished" come from? Is it from "famine"?

"Ravenous" finds its roots in Latin "rapina", "plunder", which also gave English the straightforward "rapine" (which has the same meaning) as well as "rape", which once meant something similar--literally, "to seize", which is the actual meaning of the word in the name of the famous painting The Rape of the Sabine Women; said women are being seized and carried off, with the modern meaning of the word, "to forcibly sexually assault", presumably to happen afterwards. ("Ravish", by the way, is also predictably from the same source; originally meaning exactly the same as "rape" in the sense of "to carry away forcibly", it later took on the sexual sense of "to rape". Possibly because popular culture has perversely entwined rape with love and/or sexual pleasure for a very long time--just look at "Rigoletto"--"ravish" later came to mean, in a logical enough progression but nevertheless bizarrely, "to enrapture, to overwhelm the senses".)

"Ravenous" finds its way into English through French, which softened the hard-edged "-p-" into "-v-", giving "raviner", "to take by force". An earlier meaning of "ravenous" in English was "predatory", which is obviously related to French/Latin sense: eventually its meaning spread to "greedy" and then logically enough to "voraciously hungry". Nowadays when we use the word "ravenous" in terms of food, we have little if any sense of deliberate gluttony; the word has taken on strong overtones of "desperately hungry".

Now, here's something truly fascinating. "Raven" the thieving, carrion-eating bird seems like it ought to be related, and "ravine" the gorge seems as if it couldn't possibly be, and yet the opposite is true. "Raven" comes from an old, old Gothic word, "hrafn"; completely unrelated. "Ravine", on the other hand, is a narrow, deep valley created by a violent river, and it is this sense of violence that gives it its name; the ground underneath the river is literally carried away ("raped") by the force of the water.

And finally, yes, "famish" and "famine" are related; they're both offshoots of Latin "fames", "hunger".


Blogger Frank said...

You know, pyramus, you have me so well trained, I read that quote three times trying to find the mistake before I read on and discovered there wasn't one!

Thursday, September 29, 2005 1:22:00 AM  

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