or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Yesterday I wrote about tiles, and only later did it occur to me to wonder where the word itself came from. (I wonder about etymology a lot, as you may have guessed, but I don't always follow up on it, because sometimes I'm out in the real world with no internet connection, plus if you thought about the provenance of every word that enters your brain or passes your lips, you'd never get anything else done.)

"Tile", unexpectedly, used to have a "-g-" in it, a long, long time ago. The Old English version was "tigele", which derived from Latin "tegula", which itself descended from the verb "tegere", "to cover". ("Tegere" also gave English "detect", literally "uncover", and, through the Germanic languages, "thatch", a covering for a house, and "deck", as a noun--the covering for the insides of a ship--and as a verb, the covering of something with ornaments. Oh, and "toga", too.)

As soon as I saw "tegere", I said, "Aha! That's the source of 'tegument', isn't it?" And sure enough, it is. A tegument, also known as an integument, is, in biology, a covering--your skin, for example. "Integument", in turn, is from Latin "integere" (which is just "tegere" with the usual prefix "in-"), and doesn't "integere" look like "integer"?

Sure does, but the two words have nothing to do with one another. "Integer" is actually from "in-" plus "tangere", "to touch" (and from that we also get "intangible", "untouchable"). An integer is not untouchable but untouched: it's a whole, intact number, as opposed to a fraction, which is a whole number cut into pieces.

"Intact" is also from "in-" plus "tangere", and so is "entire". "Tangere", in fact, has a whole lot of offshoots in English: I don't know what we'd do without it. Some of them (not all of them) are "tangent", the line that touches a circle; "tact" and "taste", both originally referring to the sense of touch and now metaphorically extended into other realms of feeling; "attain", to feel your way towards something and then get to it; and, unexpectedly, "tax" and "taxi", from another metaphorical sense of "to touch", "to assess".


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