or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Well, Blow Me Down

It's just fun--to someone like me, and probably you, too, if you're reading this--when you discover that a word has the most unexpected, improbable, even ridiculous provenance. Here are two that I stumbled across in the last couple of days.


I was flipping through Robert Claiborne's "The Roots of English" for laughs when I noticed the following three words (well, two words and an abbreviation) in a discussion of words such as "boulder" and "balloon" (remind me to tell you about it sometime): "L follis, bellows".

Aha! "Follis" means "bellows"! And a bellows is a sort of bag, and "follis" is clearly the root of the word "follicle", which has the diminutive "-icle" suffix, and therefore, obviously, a follicle is a little bag!

And so it is. A follicle is a little bag that holds an ovum or a hair bulb or what have you.

It gets better: a bellows is a bag of wind, yes? And "follis" is bellows, also yes? And "follis" looks like English "folly" as well, yes? And so therefore, logically, "fool" ought to derive from "follis"--yes, it does!--and therefore a fool is is a fool because he is literally a windbag. Isn't that just about the greatest thing you ever heard?


I was reading James Wolcott's blog a few days ago, and today I was reading it again and I remembered that he'd used the word "meretricious", which all by itself is fascinating because it sounds like "meritorious" but in fact means almost the exact opposite: the latter means "having merit" and the former "insincere: specious". They're not spelled the same, of course: "merit-" versus "meret-". But the fact that they sound so alike and are yet so different was amusing.

The root of "meretricious", wonderfully, is "meretrix", the Latin word for "prostitute", and that comes from "merere", "to earn [money]": presumably the only way a woman could actually earn money in Rome was to rent herself out.

And then came the twist to the twist: "meretricious" and "meritorious" have the same root! "Merere" means "to earn", and you earn merit. The difference is spelling is pure Latin: "meritus" is the past participle of "merere".

"Merere", by the way, is also the root of "polymer", the "poly-" ("many") marking it as a Greek offering: "merere" not only means "to earn" but "to get a share [part] of something", and a polymer is a molecule with many parts.


Blogger Tony Pius said...

Wait, "follis" means "bellows"? The only way I'd ever seen the word was as a Roman (and Byzantine) coin, viz.:


That's a follis of Constantine the Great; they were introduced by Diocletian when he fixed the horribly-debased coinage. In fact, let's nip over to Wikipedia to see if they have anything to add...
...and there's the "aha!" moment.

"The word follis means bag (usually made of leather), and there is evidence that this term was used in antiquity for a sealed bag containing a specific amount of coins."

Well. Who knew?

Sunday, October 15, 2006 8:10:00 PM  

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