or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, March 02, 2008


I was just reading the comments section to some website or other--it doesn't matter which--when I ran across the word "distain", which I recalled having written about before: three years ago, as it turns out (it was only my second posting to this blog!). "Distain" is an actual word; however, it is pretty rare, and not the same as the far commoner "disdain", for which it's often mistaken.

Musing briefly on "disdain", I (correctly) guessed about its etymology, and then realized with a start that, despite having written about the word, I hadn't even bothered to investigate where it had come from. It's not the sort of mistake I'd make these days.

If you ignore the spelling, "disdain" sounds like "dis-deign", and that, in fact, is precisely what it is. "Deign" means "to condescend", and "disdain" means "to not even bother to condescend". In other words, to deign is to say, "Well, I suppose, if I must", and to disdain is to say, "Oh, I don't think so."

Both words come from Latin "dignari", "to judge worthy". The "-gn" of "deign" comes from Old French "deigner", a close successor to "dignari"; its disappearance in "disdain" comes from a newer, Middle English version of the word "deinen", and its offshoot, "disdainen" (when spelling was a lot freer than it is now).

"Dignari" is a verbal form of "dignus", "worthy", which, I don't suppose I have to tell you, gave English such words as "dignity", "dignitary", and "indignant" (which is how you feel when you don't think you've been treated in accordance with your worth).

"Dignus" is an offshoot of Indo-european "dek-", "to take, to accept", which gave Latin a couple of nice big branches of words. One of them is "to teach", giving English "doctor" and "doctrine", "docent" and "docile" ("teachable"), "disciple" and "discipline". The "worthy" sense appears in such words as "decor" and "decorate" (both from a related sense of "worthy" as "seemly"), and "dainty and"decorous", and of course "deign" and its ilk.

Greek took IE "dek-" in a somewhat different direction: rather than merely "take", the Greek version, "dokein", meant "to think" or "to appear to be", both having the sense of "to take the form of", whether in the mind or in the eye. From this sense came such words "dogma" and the "-dox" words such as "paradox" ("beyond thought"), "heterodox" ("thinking differently"), and "orthodox" ("straight thinking"). "Doxology" is from that abstracted sense of "dokein" that we saw a variant of in Latin; from "appearing" to "seeming" to "seemly", because "doxa" means in one sense "honour or glory". (Another sense is the "think" sense of "dokein"; "doxa" can mean "belief" or "opinion".)

"Doxy", of course, comes from somewhere else entirely.


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