or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Carrying On

I saw the legal term "escheat" the other day, and my first thought was, "That can't possibly be related to 'cheat', can it?", and then hard on its heels was my second thought: "Well, obviously it has to be, somehow, but how?"

It's a classic example of semantic change, in which a word that's been in the language for a while finds its meaning changed by popular usage. Let's take "tremendous" as an example; it's related to "tremor", from Latin "tremere", "to shake", and once upon a time literally meant "to be trembled at"; in less than 200 years, its meaning had shifted to "enormous", and nowadays, while it still has this meaning, it's experienced a devaluation (also seen in such words as "awesome" and "terrible") to a meaning something along the lines of "really good", which is to say, as the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary notes blandly, that it's "often used as a generalized term of approval <had a tremendous time>".

"Escheat" stems from Latin "ex-" and the verb "cadere", "to fall", by way of French "eschete". Escheatment is what happens when someone dies without a will and their possessions become the property of the state. It's easy to see how the word "cheat" evolved from this; someone who thought they were legally entitled to a relative's estate would feel that they'd been deprived of something, even swindled out of it, by (at the time of the word's origin, the mid-fourteenth century) a feudal landlord, and they might well have been, too.

That's nice to know, but you know what's even more interesting? The word "semantic" itself. Its root is the Greek word "sema", meaning "sign", and as soon as I saw that, I realized that "semantic" was related not only to "semiotic", which is obvious, but also "semaphore", which is not, at least not to me.

The second half of "semaphore" is from Greek "pherein", "to carry, to bear", and also shows up in such words as "amphora", "pheromone" ("the bearer of excitement"!), and of course "metaphor".

"Pherein", finally, is yet another member of what I once called "the most dizzying array of words" stemming from the Indo-European "bher-", "to carry".


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