or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, December 28, 2007

The One

Today, a fascinating word with an absolutely riveting set of derivations.

This week's edition of Swift, James Randi's weekly blog, starts with a discussion of the Biblical notion of monotheism, which doesn't appear to be there, actually. One of the Ten Commandments, after all, isn't "There aren't any other gods, so knock it off", it's "Thou shalt have no other gods before me", which seems to suggest, and, let's face it, flat-out says, that there are a bunch of gods, but you're allowed to worship only one of them.

Polytheism is the worship of a bunch of gods. Monotheism is the worship of only one god--and in fact the belief that there is only one god. There's something in between, though, and this is the word I'd never seen before: "henotheism", the belief that, as that commandment says, you have to choose one particular god and worship it, and to hell with the others.

"Henotheism" comes from the Greek words "hen-", "one", and "theos", "god". It's the "hen-" part that's such a marvel, because it made its way into English in so many forms--not a surprise, really, since the concept of oneness is so critical to thought. It's the starting point of the counting sequence, and it's the root of pairings ("two become one") and matchings ("this one thing is like that other thing"), as well as the opposite concept, uniqueness.

Greek "hen-" gave English not "hen", obviously, but some words that contain "hen", and one of them is "hyphen". Would you ever have thought it? The word comes from "hypo-", "under", and "one", because the hyphen originated as a mark that joined syllables or words in a musical score which were to be sung together--under one note. "Hen-" is also the source of hecatomb, which in turn starts from "hekaton", "one hundred": "hen-" plus "katon", which is a cousin to "centum", as in "century", "one hundred years".

"Hen-" derives from Indo-European "sem-", with the same meaning, "one". This parent of "hen-" appears very often in English, usually with a vowel change. and a little thought will probably provide a few of them. If not, well, I will.

"Sem-" itself gave English "assemble", "to form into one thing", and "resemble", "to appear to be like something else".

The most obvious derivative of "sem-" is "sim-", and many "sim-" words in English carry the idea of oneness, though sometimes in a disguised or metaphorical way. "Simple" is a good example; we actually got the word from French (which got it from Latin "simplus" or "simplex"), where to this day it means "single" as the opposite of "double" or "multiple". "Single" itself is from the compounded IE "sem-golo-".

"Similar" is another example: from Latin "similis", "like", two things are similar when one is like another one, and likewise, "simulate" means "to make one thing appear to be like another". Latin "simul" meant "at the same time", and "simultaneous" refers to two things happening at one time; it's a portmanteau of "similar" and "instantaneous".

Doubling the vowel gives "seem", which is exactly as it seems, "to appear to be (one with)" and "seemly", "fitting", because something that fits something else is also one with it.

"Sam-" is tied to English "same", and we have a couple of Russian words, "samovar" and "samizdat", which come from Russian "sam", "self"; a samizdat is self-published and a samovar is a self-contained heating vessel used for making tea.

"Sum-" gives us "sum" itself, the act of making two numbers into one, and also "some", both by itself and as a suffix meaning literally "like" but more generally making something an adjective which may be at some remove from the actual word being modified: "bothersome" is clear enough, but "toothsome" is a bit of an oddity.

And that's enough for now, don't you think?


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