or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Standing on Ceremony

Today I was wearing a scent called L'Instant du Guerlain pour Homme, and what do you think? I wondered about where the word "instant" came from.

The quick answer is that it comes from Latin (of course it comes from Latin), from "in-", which in this case means "on", and "-stare", "to stand". To stand on? Really?

Really. The various senses of the word except the obvious one ("a brief moment of time") mean some variation of "at hand", which is where the "stand on" sense comes in: something at hand is something standing at the ready. Anything that's instant--coffee, access, gratification--is right there when you need it. (An old and mostly disused form, "inst.", an abbreviation of "instant", means "of the current month"; "I sent you the cheque on the 18th inst.") It's not much of a leap for this adjective to turn into a noun which means not the at-handness but the amount of time it takes for the thing to be ready for you.

"-Stare" gave birth to an enormous family of words in English. There are, of course, the "-stant" words such as "distant" ("standing away from"), "constant" ("standing with"), and "substantive" (it "stands under" the outward appearance). Other "-sta-" words such as "statue" and "establish" come from another sense of "-stare", "to set up" (and leave standing); another family of cousins with the original meaning includes "stay" and "stable". Yet another group of words containing "-ist-" is from the same source, including "insist" ("stand on"), "resist" ("stand against"), and "persist". And then there's the group that came from a Greek variation of "-stare", including such words as "stasis" and "static", both denoting things that just stand there. And yet more: there are bucketloads of "-st-" words which filtered into English such as "prostitute", "armistice", "stool", "system", and "cost". How amazingly prolific!


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