or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Cut Above

As I feel the need to say from time to time, I don't pick on ordinary everyday people for making mistakes in writing; all my ire is directed at people who would be expected to know better--who, in fact, are paid to know better. If something is professionally written and published, then it ought to be edited, and the loftier the source, the more stringently it ought to be overseen: the letters section of a small-town newspaper is not the same as the front page of a big-city newspaper with a circulation of a million.

But sometimes I get material from something like the comments page of a blog, and even though it's just as wrong, it's not as bad, because I don't expect everyone to know how to spell everything. Just the professionals.

Yesterday I was reading the comments for a posting on The Friendly Atheist, and the commenter used the word "epitomy". Now, that's a pretty common misspelling, and it's easy to see where it comes from: that's how the word is pronounced. It just makes sense. Unfortunately, it's also wrong: the word is "epitome".

And that, as always, set me to wondering: where does "epitome" come from, anyway?

It sure looks Greek: anything beginning with "epi-" probably is, because that's a Greek preposition with a whole lot of meanings, depending on the context: "after", "at", "before", "into", "near", "on", "over", and "upon". (You can use this to figure out what a fair batch of medical words mean. What's "epinephrine"? Well, "epi-" refers to a location, and "-nephrine" looks like the Greek word for "kidney", "nephros", so obviously epinephrine exists or originates from somewhere near the kidney, and that's just what it is: it's a hormone also known as adrenaline, secreted by the adrenal gland, which sits atop the kidney.)

Now; that "-tome". If you watch the medical shows, you've probably heard the word "microtome", which is a device for cutting tissue-thin sections of, well, tissue. (Note that this word is pronounced in three syllables, "mike-roh-tome", not four, as "ee-pit-uh-mee" is.) So we can guess that a -tome is a blade of some sort, and it certainly is, because the word comes from Greek "temnein", "to cut". (You will have seen a variation of "-tome" in the suffix "-tomy", "a cutting": "lobotomy", for instance. This is why people spell "epitome" incorrectly; because, reasonably enough, they are thinking of such words as "tracheotomy" and "episiotomy".)

So "epitome" literally means something like "cutting into" or "cutting at", and that...makes not the slightest molecule of sense.

It does, though, if you understand and accept that words change meaning over time, and sometimes change so drastically out of shape that it's hard to find the original meaning in the new one. The earliest sense of "epitome" was indeed something cut down from something else: it was an abstract, a summary, a précis, an abridgement. This sense entered the language in the early sixteenth century. Less than a hundred years later, it had metaphorically been altered, but only very slightly, to mean someone or something which was the summation--the essence--of a particular type of thing, and so a painting could be said to be the very epitome of its style, or a man to be the epitome of a gentleman. Now that the earlier sense is more or less vanished, at least from everyday speech, we're left only with that abstracted sense of "pinnacle", and so we have trouble even guessing where the word might have come from.

Obviously the word "tome", all by itself and meaning "book", isn't related to the Greek "temnein", right? That's what I thought, but, marvelously, it is. One meaning of "tome" is "one volume of a multi-volume set", and therefore it can be thought of as having been cut from the larger work, and there's that "cutting" sense of "temnein" right there.


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