Cephalogenic

or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

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Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Devil You Say

I was listening to an audiobook today on the bus to work (The History of Classical Music--it's really good) and the reader used the word "impious", which grabbed me for two reasons. Well, the same reason, really, but in two different ways.

He pronounced the word "IMP-ee-us", which struck me as a little odd, since the word is obviously constructed out of "pious" plus the prefix "im-", "not". (I'd always pronounced it "im-PIE-us"; it just seems to make more sense.) When I got home, I discovered that not only are both pronunciations correct, but the reader's is the preferred one, so you do learn something new every day. I won't be changing my pronunciation any time soon, though.

As soon as the thought had left my head, though, I realized that "IMP-ee-us" sounded odd to me because it called to mind not impiety but imps. Obviously there wasn't any connection between impiety and imps...was there?

Nah. "Impious" is a pretty simple word, but "imp" is unexpected, a ludicrously convoluted thing, and really, I wouldn't blame you if you didn't believe any of this, but I'm not making it up.

First we have Greek "emphyein", "to implant", which itself comes from "em-", exactly like Latin "im-", "in, into", and "phyein", "to bring forth", because the starting sense of the word is "an offshoot" and then, with the prefix added, "to graft onto", as a tree, or, later, feathers, because "imp" used to be a verb meaning "to graft feathers onto the wing of a falcon". This was done to hunting birds to improve their flight if they'd lost any feathers or had them torn out.

Latin took "emphyein" and turned it into "imputus", "a grafted or implanted shoot". ("Imputus"..."impute"? I'll get to that tomorrow because it's late.) In Old English, this word was compacted down into "impe" or "impa", meaning a grafted shoot or just a shoot, and from that point, the word was off and running. A shoot was the offspring of a plant, and so the word came by the 1300s to mean an offspring--specifically the scion of a great house. The word eventually came to mean any son at all, and later, as the phrase "imp of the devil", literally one of Satan's sons, a malicious little creature, which sort of wrecked the "son" sense for any other usage, which is why the term is now entirely obsolete in that sense. Eventually it was softened; nowadays, if you hear "imp" at all, it usually means a mischievous child or some minor, relatively harmless devilkin.

2 Comments:

Blogger Frank said...

I have NEVER heard that "preferred" pronunciation of "impious" before! That must be a British thing.

Saturday, January 05, 2008 12:07:00 AM  
Blogger Elaine said...

I think the little imp was very impious. And at times so are you. LOL

Saturday, January 05, 2008 10:56:00 AM  

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