or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, November 16, 2007

Cheek By Jowl

Two years ago--two years!--I wrote about the word "miscegenation" and how it begins not with "mis-", which would mean it's a bad thing, but with "misc-", which means it's a mixing thing, "miscere" being the Latin verb for "to mix".

Fast forward to this morning, as I was getting ready for work, and thought, out of nowhere (this happens a lot) of the word "promiscuous". As usual, I tossed it around it my head, and discovered that, to my amazement, it must also be an offshoot of "miscere". I couldn't believe I had never noticed it before.

"Pro-" in Latin words generally means "for" in some sense, including "forward". "Miscere" means "to mix" or "to mingle". And finally, "-ous" is a suffix which creates an adjective having the approximate meaning "full of" or "having the quality of", as in "venous" ("of or pertaining to a vein") or "nebulous" ("like a nebula").

So. "Promiscuous", a word it never occurred to me to write about in the original posting two years ago, means "in favour of mixing it up". In a sexual sense, usually.

This is why I wish etymology were taught in school alongside grammar and spelling. It's great training for the mind; it encourages flexibility of thought and the quest for knowledge. It is a wonderful thing to know where words come from, and to be able to make connections between them: that flash of insight--the one I felt this morning when I discovered I knew where a random word came from--is one of the most delightful feelings I know.

Just so I don't have to do another post in a couple of years about another word I just learned is related to "miscere": "miscellany", "a mixture of things", and "miscellaneous", "mixed", also come from this word, as does the Spanish import "mestizo", "of mixed race". Less obviously related--but related nonetheless--are "meddle", "medley", and the French borrowing "mélange", with or without the accent mark. "Mash", originally the mixture from which alcohol could be fermented, is also a relative. If that's not all of them, it's near enough for me.


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