or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Carl Jung On Line One

The word that flew into my head unbidden yesterday was "ostentatious", and I wasn't reading anything, I was just innocently doing the housework or something, and no, I don't know where these words come from when they appear in my brain, they just do. As usual, I poked around in my storehouse of words to see if I could think of any related words that would lead me to an etymology, and all I could come up with was "ostensible", which was not a whole lot of help.

And then a few hours later i was reading this article about the David Lynch movie "Lost Highway" by footnote aficionado David Foster Wallace, and right there in the middle is this sentence:

But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that's ultimately definable only ostensively--i.e., we know it when we see it.

"Ostensively"! It just showed up!

Anyone can see at a glance that "ostentatious" must be related to "ostensible" (the first means "showy" and the second means "apparently"), and that they're both related to "ostensive" ("manifest: seeming to be so"), but that's no help in figuring out their etymology, is it? It's that "os-" at the beginning. It's really confusing! The core of both words is, at any rate, "-ten-" or "-tens-", and if that's not Latin, well, I don't know what is.

The root, as it turns out, is Latin "tendere", "to stretch", the root of a whole bunch of English words such as "tensile" ("capable of being stretched"), "tense" ("stretched tightly"), and "distended" ("stretched out").

What about that "os-" at the beginning, though? That's what kind of threw me. I should have known, I guess, that it didn't start out as "os-". As I mentioned a few days ago, the Latinate prefix "ad-", in front of words beginning with "f-", such as "fix", becomes "af-", because it's easier to say. The same is true of the prefix "ob-", "in front of". One variant of it was "obs-", and over generations of repetition, the "-b-" dropped away because it was easier to say "ostensivus" than "obstensivus".

So "ostentatious" means, literally, "stretched out in front of", which is exactly what you do when you're showing off your refined manners or your pricey belongings or whatnot: you spread them out in front of everyone so they can have a good look.


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