or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mix It Up

Yesterday, you may recall, I was talking about "emaciate", which derives ultimately from Indo-European "mak-", "long, thin". It was going to be even longer, but two things intervened: first, I had some stuff to do before going to work, and second, I realized I could get a whole other posting out of it. When I got home from work last night, there was an e-mail from a reader named OmegaMom which read, in its entirety,


Simple, elegant, and to the point. And, as it happens, the very word that I was about to discuss.

"Macaroni", an elongated tubular pasta, must be derived from "mak-". It's obvious, and everything fits: macaroni is long pasta and its name looks like "macron", which (after an insignificant change in consonants) starts with the IE root.

Despite this complete obviousness, there's no direct connection. Etymology is a tricky and tangled thing, and it happily leads us astray whenever it can.

"Macaroni" is a giant tangle, too. I don't think I have the whole thing from start to finish: one article I found teasingly showed me the first page and then asked me to pay for the rest, and as devoted as I am to this blog, that's a step too far. (I'll spend time but not money.) But here's what I've been able to ferret out. If I've gotten anything wrong, well, it's not from lack of trying, that's for sure.

"Macerate" is an English word with a couple of meanings: the most usual one, a cooking term, is "to soften by steeping in liquid": one might macerate fruit for a pie, for example. Another meaning is "to waste away: to become emaciated", perhaps from a couple of metaphorical extensions related to the "steeping" sense: you macerate food, liquid is drawn from it, and the mixture becomes soft and watery, so it's thinned out, which is what "emaciate" means.

And yet these two words are from different IE roots. "Emaciate", as we know, comes from "mak-", but "macerate" comes from "mag-", "to knead, to make". They are extremely similar, but they are not the same word, and their etymological development went off in two different directions (which happened to overlap slightly in the senses of "macerate"). "Mak-" led to "emaciate", and "mag-" led to a whole crew of words. One of these was Greek "makaria", a mixture of broth and barley groats (coarsely crushed grain): the connection between this and the eventual "macerare" is obvious. It is evidently this Greek word which led, eventually, to Italian "maccarone", a dumpling, and from this came "macaroni", a kind of pasta which is similarly made of a flour paste. ("Macaroon", a kind of cookie which in Europe is made of almond paste but in North America is primarily made of coconut, also comes from "maccarone".)

"Mak-" meant "make", and sure enough, it's the source of that very word in English. "Match" is another descendent--"to make two things fit together"--and so is "mingle", a very specific sort of kneading together. This "kneading" sense gave rise to a pair of words I never would have connected, though they share a syllable: "among", which is to say "mixed in with", and "mongrel", a mixture of breeds. And finally, that big lump of kneaded dough led to Greek "maza", from which English derived "mass" and "massive".

I know of people who've tried to read my blog and found nothing but bafflement. That's fine: this sort of thing isn't for everyone, and I'd have the same response reading a blog about car engines or ancient Assyria or the streetlights of Europe (all of which I'm sure are interesting and involving in their own way). But I find etymology to be infinitely fascinating, and I can't help but think that people should naturally be interested in it: it's a window into how the mind works, and a connecting thread between the past and the present.


Anonymous OmegaMom said...

Hah. See? It made *perfect* sense, and yet it turns out that the "perfect sense" wasn't, after all.

Those of us who like etymology are the kinds of folk who were brought up reading the OED for fun...I read you religiously in my Bloglines, though don't always click through, because I find your little forays into the past "infinitely fascinating".

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 2:43:00 PM  

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