or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Two Much

The word that popped into my head today was "diplomat". I couldn't guess where it might come from: it plainly couldn't be related to "dip" or "dipsomania", and it clearly meant "someone with a diploma", but...why?

We've got a lovely tangle of words here, and I'm in a talkative mood, so get comfortable.

A diplomat is indeed someone with a diploma, but not the sort you're thinking of. (Anyone with an education-conferred diploma is instead a diplomate, with the long terminal vowel that the "-e" donates to it; "diplomat" has, of course, a short terminal vowel.) "Diploma" didn't originally mean "proof someone has earned a degree"; it meant first an official document of any sort, and then in Latin a letter of introduction--which, it could be argued, a university diploma sort of is.

Once upon a time, there weren't any envelopes: a letter or other document meant to be kept (casually) from prying eyes was folded and sealed with wax impressed with a signet. If the seal was broken, the letter had been read and the messenger was in trouble. (There are ways of getting around this: you can take a cast of the seal in putty or other malleable material, make a plaster duplicate, open the letter, reseal it with wax, and reproduce the insignia with the plaster.) And so a document, or a letter of introduction, was a folded piece of paper, and therefore a diploma, from the Greek word "diplous", "double", describing the state of the document. Isn't that great?

"Diplous" exists still in English as the prefix "diplo-", where it always denotes doubleness: "diplococcus" (a bacterium in the form of two joined spheres), for instance, or "diplodocus" ("double-raftered", referring to the beam-like shape of its tail), not to mention "diploid". Obviously in the case of "diplomat", "diplomacy" and the like, that doubleness is at a distant metaphorical remove: but it's still there. And, of course, "di-" also often indicated a doubling as well, since it's also from the Greek; many English scientific words beginning in "di-" mean or imply twoness, such as "dichroic", "dihedral", and "dipolar". (English also contains a lot of words that look as if they might begin with "di-" but don't, such as "diurnal", which stems from "dies", "day", or "diameter", which actually starts with "dia-", which means "across", as in "diameter", or "divide", which starts with "dis-", "apart". These words all come from Latin. At the risk of making a too-broad generalization: "di" + Greek = two: "di-" + Latin = something else.)

"Dip" appears to be unrelated to Greek "dipsomania", "uncontrollable thirst (for alcoholic beverages)", which surprises me a little; I had guessed they might be related, since you can take a dip of water from a container, and "dipso-" means "thirst" in Greek--it seems like a natural enough derivation. But no. "Dip" evidently stems instead from a batch of Germanic words related to water: "deep" and "depth", and also "dive", which all stem from a common Indo-European root ("dheub-", meaning "hollow", in case you were wondering).


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