or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, August 11, 2006

Under the Knife

I got up at 2:41 (by the bedroom clock, which is 5 minutes fast but which it never occurs to me to reset) to use the can (rare is the night that allows me to sleep until sunrise) and take some ibuprofen (because sometimes I wake up with a small headache, and it's best to nip these things in the bud), and in the kitchen saw a pair of scissors on the counter, and naturally the thought that came into my head at that hour and in those circumstances was, "Hey, I wonder how 'scissors' is related to 'abscissa'?"

Because even at quarter to three in the morning, you know they have to be, what with that identical "-sciss-" element. It would just be too much of a coincidence if they were unrelated.

An abscissa, in case you didn't remember this from your school days, is the line parallel to the X axis in the Cartesian coördinate system.

"Abscissa" itself is straightforward Latin, the feminine form of "abscissus", "to cut away": "ab-" is the standard prefix meaning "away from", and the rest comes from "caedere", "to cut", which also gives English such words as "chisel", "excise" (the verb, that is, which means literally "cut away", ), and "concise" ("cut short for clarity"). Some people--Pliny the Elder was apparently the first to put this theory on paper--think that the name Caesar comes from the word "caedere", since the first of the line (but not Julius Caesar himself) was cut from his mother's body in the operation now known as the Caesarian section, which, if true, makes the name a little redundant, since "section" also means "to cut", as it's from the Latin "secare", "to cut", and why shouldn't Latin have two verbs with the same meaning?

"Scissors", remarkably, isn't a direct draw from "abscissa": it has a long and twisted history, and let's let Answers.com tell the story:

From alteration (influenced by Latin scissor, cutter) of Middle English sisours, scissors, from Old French cisoires, from Vulgar Latin *cīsōria, from Late Latin, pl. of cīsōrium, cutting instrument, from Latin caesus, -cīsus, past participle of caedere, to cut.

I can guess what happened to the spelling: the same people who put the "-b-" into "debt" decided that since "abscissa" exists, "sisours" should be spelled "scissors" instead, and made a big fuss until that spelling got into the dictionary. (The original English spelling of "debt" was "dette", taken directly from the French: but snippy spelling reformers, not the modern kind who want us to use words like "thru" and "cigaret", decided that since Latin was the most perfectly developed of languages, English spelling should conform to it as closely as possible, and the Latin root of "dette" was "debere", "to owe", from which we get "debit", a word which at least comes by its "-b-" honestly.)

The line perpendicular to the Y axis, by the way, is called the ordinate, and no, I don't know why one means "cut here" and the other means "put it in order".

And "excise" the noun, as in "excise tax", isn't the same "excise" as the "caedere" version, though its spelling was almost certainly influenced by it; it's actually a cobbled-together word from the Latin "census" and the French "assise", which became in English "assize", one meaning of which is "the regulation of weights and measures on things meant for consumption".

There. That's how my brain works at three in the morning.


Blogger Frank said...

Abscess looks like it'd be connected to abscissa, but it looks like it isn't, quite.

"[Latin abscessus, separation, abscess, from past participle of abscēdere, to go away, slough, form an abscess (possibly translation of Greek apostēma, distance, abscess, from aphistasthai, to withdraw, slough, form an abscess) : ab-, away; see ab–1 + cēdere, to go.]"

Saturday, August 12, 2006 12:32:00 AM  

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