or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, October 09, 2006


Why do people insist on firing off dubious pronouncements on correct English usage? That's my job.

No, wait. It's my job to fire off the pronouncements and fix the dubious assertions. Whew.

From the letters section for a Salon.com article about hack actor Stephen Baldwin's new line of work:

A minor quibble, but that would be the 12 Apostles, not the 12 Disciples.

Now, I'm the first to admit--announce, in fact--that English has lots of words but very few exact synonyms. "Apostle" and "disciple" aren't identical in meaning; hardly any two words in English are. However, their meanings overlap and blur, and when you put the adjective "twelve" in front of either word, it's instantly clear that what you're speaking about is the group of followers that Jesus chose to disseminate his beliefs. "Twelve apostles" is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same as "twelve disciples". Admittedly, "apostles" has an edge, if you trust Google's count: 1.29 million hits for "twelve apostles OR 12 apostles" versus 375,000 for "twelve disciples OR 12 disciples". But they're the same thing in everyday usage. The letter-writer's distinction is not even a quibble; it's just nit-picking to a degree that even I wouldn't engage in.

"Apostle" comes from the Greek "apo-", "off, away" plus "stellein", "to send", which is also the root of the word "epistle". The etymology of "disciple", though. Whom to believe on that count? The only certainty is that it's from Latin, which you could guess from looking at it anyway.

Answers.com says it comes from "discipulus", pupil, which originates from "discere", "to learn". (If you guess, as I did, that "discern" also comes from "discere", you're wrong, just as I was: that word actually comes from "cernere", "to sift", which then gave us such words as "certain" and "secret").

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that "disciple" comes from "discipulus", too, but then it says that that comes from "discipere", "to grasp intellectually", which comes from "dis-", "apart", plus "capere", "to take", which is to say that "discipere" means "to take apart analytically".

Robert Claiborne's The Roots of English says that "disciple" comes from "docere", "to teach", a word which also gave us "doctor", "docile" ("teachable"), and "document", which was originally a lesson. This seems least likely, because "to learn" and "to teach" aren't the same thing at all, related though they are. Perhaps Claiborne is getting at the fact that "docere" and "discere" have the same Indo-European root, but if so, he does it in an uncharacteristically opaque way.

"Discere", "discipere", "docere". These Latin words all have overlapping meanings, but they aren't all the same, so clearly we'll have to let the Oxford English Dictionary, the best of all possible dictionaries, settle it, won't we? The OED says that "disciple" comes from --drumroll, please--"discere", "to learn", the most obvious of the three etymologies. (It's possible that "discere" is a descendent of "discipere", which would be what the Online Etymology Dictionary is getting at--it's what another source, here, says--but I wish they'd made that clear.)


Blogger Tony Pius said...

The nitpicker is correct insofar as there's only an eleven-person overlap between the Original Disciples and the New Apostles.

The Disciples are the original band, doing a lot of sitting-at-the-feet and exclaiming-at-the-wisdom gigs. When the whole group of thirteen is barnstorming Judea -- performing in coffeehouses and barns, and working their way up to the big open-air Concert On The Mount -- they're correctly called Jesus and the Disciples.

Then there's intra-group squabbling, and the band breaks up, and the founder dies in sensational circumstances. Everybody's seen the E! True Hollywood Story episode, so I don't have to get into details. Judas is the Syd Barrett figure, punted from the group and replaced by someone with a "fresher" and "less betray-ey" approach. They auditioned both Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias, but only the latter had the right sound.

Like the E Street Band, bereft of its frontman but determined to rock on nonetheless, the reconstituted group took on a new name: The Apostles.

The other eleven dudes are the same in both incarnations, so unless Baldwin were to name both "Matthias" and "Judas Iscariot," the judges would probably give him a pass. No points, however, are given for the Apostle Oscar.

Monday, October 09, 2006 2:58:00 PM  

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