or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, March 10, 2006

Thrown for a Loop

Some folk etymologies, which is to say made-up ones (particularly "spelling etymologies" for words such as "posh" and "fuck"), are, for lack of a better word, stupid. Some, on the other hand, are entirely reasonable. Wrong, but reasonable.

Jim had long been under the impression that the expression "the die is cast" (which is to say "that which is to come is unalterable and momentous") referred to a stamping die which, having been made of metal and allowed to set, was thereafter unchangeable. I don't know if he read it somewhere or if he just tried to make sense out of it, but for someone who's guessing at it, it isn't really an unreasonable interpretation. However, anyone who knows the original Latin, along with some etymology, is going to figure it out differently.

"Alea jacta est" (occasionally rendered "jacta alea est"--Latin lets you jumble the word order and keep the sense) is what Julius Caesar is said to have said when he crossed the Rubicon (another English-language expression for a consequential action which can't be undone) to invade Italy.

Now, "alea" is still seen in the English word "aleatory", which means "dependent on chance or luck": writers and musicians have used to it to add an element of randomness to their work. Knowing this--even if we don't know that it's from Latin "alea", "a die", "a dicing game"--suggests to us that the die referred to in the English translation of the phrase isn't a stamping die, but a gambling die.

"Jacta" is seen, in part, in the English word "ejaculate", which of course means "to involuntarily and forcefully expel fluid during orgasm" but also used to mean "to exclaim suddenly". (Perhaps it's just me, but the first meaning of the word has so eclipsed the second that the usage, still in common currency a hundred years ago but now more or less defunct, still strikes me as jarring, as in this sentence from the first chapter of Anne of Green Gables: "'Well, of all things that ever were or will be!' ejaculated Mrs. Rachel when she was safely out in the lane.") Knowing the "jacta"/"ejaculate" link, even without knowing that it's from Latin "jaculari", "to throw", we can guess that the "cast" of the expression has nothing to do with metal-casting but instead means that something was tossed or thrown, and not "cast" in the sense of "formed from molten metal". ("Jacta" is also seen, in altered form, in all English words that contain "-ject-": it always signifies something that was either thrown--"reject", "project"--or something that, having been thrown, is lying there--"adjective", which lies next to a noun.)


Looking up "fuck" on Answers.com, which is useful but isn't definitive or complete, was a disappointment; they barely scratch the surface of the idiomatic uses of this word. They don't even mention the past-tense "fucked", meaning variously "in a fix" ("Now we're fucked") or "ruined" ("The engine's fucked"). Their list of phrasal verbs is so woefully lacking: where's "fuck around", meaning "goof off"?

There are so many expressions in English using this word that you could write an entire book about it, and, unsurprisingly, someone has.


Post a Comment

<< Home