or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Chain Letter

What I love most about etymology is the way it can pull you in directions you never would have dreamed of when you started out.

Yesterday I used the word "concatenate" and then of course immediately wondered where it came from. Latin, obviously: "con-" plus something else plus "-ate", an ending from Latin "-atus" which usually in English makes a word into both a verb and an adjective (as it does in this case).

The "-catena-" in this case is the identical Latin word which means "chain", so to concatenate things is to chain them together into a series or unit. Nothing extraordinary there: it's exactly what it looks like.

As soon as I saw that, though, I recognized a word I'd known for a long time but never known the derivation of: "catenary", which is the shape of a specific kind of geometric figure that looks like a parabola but isn't. I won't bore you with the details--you can read them here--except to say that a catenary is the shape formed by a flexible object such a rope or, duh, a chain, suspended at both ends and permitted to hang freely in the middle. In this picture, the parabola is red and the catenary is blue, so you can see how similar, but not identical, they are. (The purplish line is an arc of a circle.)

And...you probably don't care about that. But it does get more interesting. The word "chain" in English is derived, as you likely could have guessed, from the French: modern "chaƮne", from Old French "chaeine", which, slightly improbably, is derived from the Latin "catena", which is turn is evolved from the Indo-European "kat-", "to twist, to twine".

But wait! There's more! "Kat-" took off in another direction as well, as far as anybody knows (because etymology swims in some mighty murky waters). A thatched roof is made of twisted and/or plaited materials, and so eventually "kat-" or some version thereof led to a word meaning the small building that was roofed with such materials; a shed, a hut, a cottage, a small house. The Latinate--Italian and Spanish--word for a house followed, and that word was, and still is, "casa".

And more: a small house needs a diminutive ending, and in Italian got one; the small house in the country, which eventually became a room or building for entertainment and gambling, was, and still is, "casino".


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