or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Separate Lives

I think it was in the letters section for Salon's review of "Sicko", the new Michael Moore movie. I don't remember the exact context and I'm not going back through almost twenty pages of letters, but if I recall correctly, someone took the American senator Fred Thompson to task for criticizing Moore for a trip to Cuba*, though Thompson himself is known to smoke (illegal) Cuban cigars. The word they used was "hypocrite".

Now, Cuba, Thompson and Moore are neither here nor there (though I likely will go see "Sicko" when it plays here), but "hypocrite" is a tremendously interesting word.

The centrepiece of it is the Indo-European root "krei-", which means "to sift", and it's a long way from sifting to hypocrisy, believe me.

"Krei-" went through both Latin and Greek, accumulated quite a few variants and meanings, and eventually threw most of them into English. To start with, the pure "sift" sense of the stem gave us through Latin such words as "discriminate" (sift the good from the bad). When its sense changed in Latin to the verb "cernere", "to separate out, to decide", we ended up with such words as "discern", "certain" (that is, "decided"), and also "discreet", and "secret"** (both adjectives meaning "separated from public view").

Then, "krei-" in Latin mutated into "crimen", "judgement", later "offense", which gave us, obviously, "crime" and "criminal" (through French). In Greek, "krei-" led to "krinein", "to separate out, to judge", giving English "critic" (a judge, of sorts), "crisis" (originally, the turning point, the point at which some momentous thing is decided), and, metaphorically and idiomatically, "hypocrite".

Originally, a hypocrite was a dramatic actor, someone who pretends at things that aren't true; eventually, the meaning evolved into "someone whose inner beliefs and outer behaviour are at odds with one another".

Hell of a journey, that.

* It is illegal for Americans to go to Cuba without explicit permission from the U.S. government, which has been having a continuous hissy fit over Cuba for the better part of half a century--they're communists!--and so when American tourists want to vacation there, which they do a lot, the come to Canada for a vacation instead. And then, of course, upon landing here, they immediately fly to Cuba.

** "Secrete" also belongs in this list, but it's split in two, both verbs, with two very different routes of provenance. The one which means "to discharge, to release, as a fluid" is a back-formation from "secretion", which is descended from "secern", an English word you've probably never heard before which means "to discriminate or distinguish between". This is baffling until you learn that a secretion isn't just some random ooze: it's an ooze which has been purposefully manufactured by an organism, and in the process of manufacture has been separated out from other fluids, and this separation is of course from the "cernere" root. The second version of "secrete" is also a back-formation, but this one came directly from "secret", logically enough, since you secrete something which is meant to be kept a secret.


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