or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, December 01, 2007

That's a Wrap

Here's something clever you might like: a batch of clue-free crosswords. I won't even tell you how it works: just jump in and start clicking some buttons. Fun!


Here's a sentence from a recent Consumerist piece:

The Geek Squad "precincts" that had bench machines containing serious violations had their hard drives removed and shipped to the corporate office.

The word "precinct" struck me for three reasons. First, it was in quotation marks, so it caught my eye. Second, it seemed like an odd usage of the word. And third, where could it have come from?

It was pretty obviously Latin; the "pre-" prefix more or less assured that. The root of the word was clearly "-cinc-" or "-cinct", whatever that might be, and that seemed to suggest a relationship to the word "cinch", which, it occurred to me on further reflection, must be related to the French word "ceinture", which means "belt" and sounds sort of like "cinch-ture" if your French accent isn't very good.

Right on all counts. The Indo-European root "kenk-" means "to bind" or "to gird"; it led to Latin "cingere", with the same meanings. To cinch, of course, is to tighten: "cinch" is also a slangy noun meaning "something very easy or assured of success", but I couldn't tell you where that comes from, unless it's some elliptically metaphorized sense.

A precinct, therefore, is something surrounded (the "pre-" acts as an intensifier); originally by a wall, now most usually by an invisible line that separates one area from another, as in a police precinct or an electoral district.

"Cingere" also gave English "cincture", a belt (and the obvious offspring of "ceinture" above); "succinct", which is to say "all wrapped up", as an argument or a speech; and "shingles", the form of herpes which forms blisters that can wrap themselves entirely around the body. (It's a folk belief that if shingles do encircle the body, the sufferer is sure to die. This, fortunately, isn't true; they're usually localized on one side of the body, but even a severe case in which the midriff is ringed with vesicles isn't a death sentence.)

The French word "enceinte" has entered English twice, the two meanings seemingly unrelated to one another, for a very good reason: they arose individually from different sources. One meaning is "pregnant"*, and this stems from Latin "inciens", with the same meaning. Its derivation is big and messy and I'm going to save it for another day (there are surprises inside). The other "enceinte" means "a fortification which surrounds a castle or town", and the relationship to "cinch", and therefore the derivation from "cingere", is obvious.

*Back in the early fifties when Lucille Ball was a huge star and her "I Love Lucy" was one of the most popular shows on television, there was a minor uproar among the studio heads when she had the brazen gall to become pregnant. How dare she! And how could they deal with it? CBS actually insisted that there was no way a pregnant woman could be shown on the air, since that would imply that she had had sex; evidently they believed that babies were found in a cabbage patch. They ended up writing the pregnancy into the show because it would clearly make good press, but the suits felt they couldn't say the word "pregnant" on television, so they ended up using such genteel write-arounds as "expecting"; the episode in which the pregnancy was announced was entitled "Lucy is Enceinte".


Blogger Frank said...

"'cinch' is also a slangy noun meaning 'something very easy or assured of success', but I couldn't tell you where that comes from, unless it's some elliptically metaphorized sense."

Seems rather plain to me. If something's a sure thing, you have it "held" tight, like a pair of pants with a belt.

Does "kink" derive from this group of words? I ask just because it's so close to the IE "kenk-" they derive from.

Sunday, December 02, 2007 2:19:00 AM  

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