or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Trust Me

Alexander Pope famously said, "A little learning is a dangerous thing", but sometimes I find that a little learning can push you in the right direction, if you're learned the right things.

The other day I was reading about Sylvia Browne, a would-be psychic whose livelihood consists of cynically peddling cruel lies to gullible and desperate people for shockingly large sums of money. On this page of the website Stop Sylvia Browne was the word "affidavit", and, well, where might such a strange word come from?

When you say it out loud--"aff-uh-DAY-vit"--you can't possibly make any sense of it. It's just a bunch of syllables with no evident connection to any other word you could think of. So I stared at it for a few seconds, and then figured as follows:

1) It's probably Latin. It looks kind of Latinate, and I can't imagine what else it might be, so let's go with that.

2) If it's Latin, then "af-" is almost certainly the same as Latin "ad-", only with the consonant changed to an eff before another eff, as in "affliction" or "affiance".

3) If that's the case, then even though we break up the word strangely into syllables that don't correspond with the etymology, the root of the word is actually "-fid-". And if that's true, then I already know a bunch of words with "-fid-" or something like that in them, such as "fidelity" and "perfidy".

4) Those words come from Latin "fides", meaning "trust" or "faith", and therefore an affidavit is a document which you can trust--which you can put your faith in--because it was made under oath.

And all of this turned out the be the case. I really don't know any Latin worth talking about, but just knowing a little bit of it and being able to make some logical connections enabled me to decipher what is really a very strange English word. ("Affidavit" comes unaltered from Middle Latin, a conjugated form of the verb "affidare". Not that I knew that beforehand.)

I mentioned "affiance" up there, and that word--get this!--is from exactly the same root as "affidavit" (though through French, obviously); it started with the verb "affidare", "to pledge", because when you become affianced to someone, you pledge to marry them.


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