or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Usual Suspects

When Jim and I were over in England, we were delighted--thrilled, really--to discover that when you had completed a transaction with a Barclays Bank ATM, the screen would read, "Thank You For Your Custom". How polite! How British! They even print it on the ATM receipts!

We'd heard it on some British TV shows (you know, half-hour comedies), but it's a word you don't hear in that context in North America, although, of course, the general meaning survives in the word "customer".

People like me who derive a perverse pleasure from seeing signs misspelled treasure the occasional occurrence of the word "costumer" where "customer" was meant. "Costumer Parking Only", the sign might read, and my day may consider itself made. It's such an easy mistake to make: transpose a couple of vowels and you probably won't even notice, and if you're using a spellchecker for electronic writing, that won't notice, either. Why, just look at this web page:

"Costumer service", bold as you please. (Click on the picture to make it large as life.) And not far below it, the correct version, too. Someone very likely did use a spellchecker on the page, for all the good it did them.

Anyway, imagine my astonishment when I discovered that "costume" and "custom" are not only derived from the same source: they're pretty much exactly the same word. I never would have guessed, but there it is.

The words began their lives as the unpromising Indo-European root "s(w)e-", which is the reflexive pronoun*: it's also the root of "suicide", the killing of the self. It branched off in diverse ways, and one of these branches, with the meaning "things that are one's own", led to a little cluster of words which have the sense of "distinctive" or "in-group". A custom, therefore, is something that is the distinctive way that a particular group behaves--one of things that binds it together and differentiates it from other groups.

From that IE root blossomed the Latin word "suescere", "to become accustomed to"; with the intensifier "com-" latched onto it, it became "consuescere", "to accustom", and then eventually French "costume". Middle English transformed this word into "custume", and eventually "custom".

At the same time, it maintained French "costume" for words referring to clothing. A costume nowadays usually means something you put on to disguise yourself or otherwise be something or someone you aren't, but another, older meaning is simply the clothing which a group of people wear, their general style of dress: it's what they're accustomed to wearing.

"Custom" does mean "habit" or "the usual manner of acting", but its meaning blossomed out in various directions: another meaning is "a toll or duty", because it was customary (read: obligatory, but in a polite sense) to pay it. And another sense is that of habitual patronage at a particular shop or vendor: it becomes your custom to shop there, and the merchant thanks you for your custom.

It would be tempting to think that this is the source of "customer", but in fact that word had a much, much older meaning: originally, a customer was the person whose job it was to collect those tolls and duties known as custom.

*This is to say--there's no shame in not knowing, if you don't know--the pronoun that refers back to the self, and, in fact, in English does end with the word "-self" or its plural: "Know thyself", for instance, or "They should be ashamed of themselves".


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