or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, June 14, 2007


I have really got to get a BlackBerry or something.

Yesterday I had just headed out the door to work when the word "superstition", or possible the Stevie Wonder song by that name, popped into my head*, and I instantly found myself wondering where the word might have come from, and with no access to any thing Internettish until I got home, I was stuck with my own brain.

Okay. The word is clearly Latin. "Super-" means "above", that much is clear. It's the "-stit-" that I can't get. A moment's reflection presents me with the word "interstitial", which, it is clear, must be related somehow. "Interstitial" means "lying between things", as in the interstitial fluid which surrounds the cells in your body.

This, as it turned out, was no help in deciphering that fragment "-stit-", so I had to wait until I got home to look it up. Even that wasn't much help, to be honest.

The germ of "interstitial" is the Latin verb "stare", "to stand", which, as we know, has given English a preposterously large share of words. An interstice is something which stands between two other things, and interstitial fluid stands between cells.

All very well and good, but what about "superstition"? What's standing above what else?

God knows. Dictionary.com says its origin means "standing beyond, outliving", and that's all they say, which tells me nothing useful. The OED suggests that the etymology is "perhaps 'standing over a thing in amazement or awe'", which is an improvement but still sounds a bit like a folk etymology, or at least random guesswork. They make a couple of other suggestions which they then dismiss as "foreign to Roman thought", so I guess the amazement-or-awe theory is all we have.

* Did a black cat cross my path? Was there a ladder for me to not walk under? I don't even remember. I'm not at all superstitious, so it probably wasn't anything but a few random neurons firing.


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