or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Potty Mouth

Slate.com has an occasional column called "Human Guinea Pig", in which Emily Yoffe, who's much braver than I am, does things just to see what it would be like: enters a beauty pageant and an eating competition (not at the same time, obviously), learns how to fool a lie detector, becomes a nude artists' model. It's all here, and all well worth your time; she's a terrific writer.

In the most recent installment, she uses the word "commode" twice:

...if you were a defense industry lobbyist, you'd give a congressman a $7,200 Louis-Philippe commode and the Pentagon contract would be yours.

But what if you want to be a lobbyist and you've never played a round of golf, the only season tickets you have are to a children's puppet theater, and your commodes are all American Standard and bolted to your bathroom floor?

Nothing wrong with it, of course, but I naturally wondered how "commode" could have come to mean "toilet". It's related to the words "commodious" ("roomy, spacious") and "incommodate/incommode", ("disturb, inconvenience"), neither of which seems to have much if anything to do with a toilet.

But it all makes perfect sense once you realize that "commode" comes from Latin "commodus", "convenient", and what could be more convenient than not having to go outside to do your business? (And finally, to tie it all together, I remembered that in England, "convenience" is yet another euphemism for "toilet" or "lavatory", which is itself a euphemism, being a pretty exact translation of "washroom", a standard North American euphemism for the same thing.)

"Commode", since you have to have been wondering by now, is from the usual Latin prefix "com-", "together, with" plus "-modus", "measure", which is also the source of "commodity", something which has been judged to be useful. And "convenience", since we're there anyway, is also from Latin "com-" plus "-venire", "to come"; its source, "convenire", meant "to be suitable for", which is to say "something in which everything has come together", which certainly applies to something convenient. (It's intimately related to "convene", which also means "come together", in a somewhat different manner.)


Blogger Tony Pius said...

And also closely related is the modius, a grain measure of about two gallons that was more or less a "standard bucket." It was frequently depicted on coins of Roman rulers who wanted to remind people just who was keeping the government-sponsored free wheat coming.

Thursday, March 16, 2006 2:29:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Well, that is fascinating: I'd never heard of the measure before. But it's no surprise, since "modus" does, after all, mean "measure", so why shouldn't it have given its name to a specific measure?

"Modus" didn't just mean "measure" specifically; it also had sideways meanings such as "limit" and "manner", which led to such words as "mode" (as in "a la mode", "in the manner of") and "modernity" ("the manner of the current time"), not to mention "modest", "moderate", "modify", and many, many other "mod-" words.

Thursday, March 16, 2006 3:25:00 PM  
Blogger Tony Pius said...

I think that the modius is the "measure" of Revelation 6:6, describing high food prices and ensuing famine: "A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny..."

The "penny" is a denarius, the dime-sized silver coin that was roughly the daily wage. (That's also why the pre-reform British coinage abbreviated "pence" as "d." -- it was short for "denarius.")

Thursday, March 16, 2006 7:43:00 PM  

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