or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, March 13, 2008


So after lunch I was washing up the dishes and my mind was just kind of wandering, and the word "damn" came into my mind, not as an expletive but just as a word, and I began fishing around to see if I could imagine where it might have come from. Eventually--it was only about thirty seconds, but a lot of words can flicker through your synapses in thirty seconds--it occurred to me that the second half of "condemn" looks quite a lot like "damn". Quite a lot indeed! I was so certain that the two must be siblings that I dropped what I was doing (I shut off the running water first) and trotted over to the computer to look it up.

And whaddaya know? They're the same word! And there's something even better hidden in them both, but I'll get to that in a minute.

"Condemn" starts with Latin "con-" (a variant of "com-" with the consonant changed before the letter "d"), which usually means "together", but in this case, as in so many other cases, is a simple intensifier. The "-demn" part, which is obviously (in hindsight) related to "damn", is from Latin "damnum", "penalty" or "fine", but also "harm" or "damage".


Yeah, that's related to both "condemn" and "damn", too. The suffix "-age" is much used in English to turn various parts of speech into nouns: "herbage", for instance, or "shrinkage". "Damage" is "damn-" plus "-age", making a noun out of something that already was a noun in Latin ("damnum") in order to make it different from the "damn" which was becoming a verb (and, eventually, an oath).

Looking at "condemn", and knowing that a minor change in vowels made it the different-seeming but really identical "damn", wouldn't you think that the word "contemn", even if you've never seen or heard it before, is just "condemn" with a slight change in consonants? You might think that, but you'd be wrong. (Consonants are a lot sturdier than vowels.)

"Contemn" doesn't mean "condemn" or anything like it: instead it means "to disdain: to scorn". In fact, it is intimately related to, and (if you ignore the differing parts of speech) in exactly the same vein as, "contempt". Both words are from "con-", here again an intensifier, plus "temnere", "to slight", "to despise".


Post a Comment

<< Home