or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Stick Around

The word "stigma" showed up yesterday, and I didn't want to get into its Indo-European source because that's so interesting and varied that it seemed like a discussion all its own.

"Stigma" comes from IE "steig-", "to stick", "to pierce", and it generated a number of English words, some of which are pretty clearly related and some...not so much. "Stick" is the most obvious relative, both the piece of wood (with which we can poke and pierce things) and the piercing itself (to stick someone with a needle, for example). "Stake" is an offshoot of "stick", of course. Closely related to "stick" is "stitch", which needs no explanation, I trust, and "stickleback", a kind of northern fish with spines along its back. (Sticklebacks have no scales! Some of them have a sort of armour plating, though, which isn't anatomically the same as scales, but still, cool--an armour--plated fish!)

Getting a little further afield, we have "etiquette" and its offshoot "ticket". "Etiquette" is the French word for "ticket" or "label", and it's tempting to say that that's because they can be stuck into or onto something, and for once you should yield to temptation, because that's the source. (We often think of "stick", in the sense of "attach one thing to another", as something you do with glue, but you can also do it with a pin or a thumbtack.) Originally middle French "estiquette", a ticket, the word came to mean a list or memorandum, and that's what etiquette is: a list, whether written or tacit, of the ways one is to behave in polite society.

If you see "stigmata" and think "astigmatic", and then wonder how the one could have any relationship to the other, you're not alone, but knowing that "steig-" means "to stick", you could make a guess based on a couple of metaphorical leaps, right? If something is going to stick or prick you and cause you to bleed, it needs to have a pointed end, so "stigmatic" could mean, or lead to the sense of, "coming to a point". When light rays focus on your retina, they come to a point, and if they don't, then you have imperfect retinal images and therefore imperfect vision. So "astigmatic" can mean "not coming to a point", which is what the light rays do because of a malformed cornea.

The path is even more tortured to "distinguish" and "extinguish", but those words, too, are relatives. ("Extinguish" lost its ess because the "-x-" sound rendered it unnecessary.) Latin "stinguere" meant "to quench", bafflingly enough, but "extinguere" meant "to obliterate" or "to wipe out", which is what you could do with your pointed weapons. "Distinguere" meant, and still does mean, "to separate out", for reasons that are even more obscure: all we know is that it is (self-evidently, I would think) related, for some reason.

Three last words from "steig", all of them unexpected and wonderful. "Tiger" is named for its sharp-ended stripes. "Steak" is so named for the pointed spit on which the larger cut of meat from which a steak was severed could be roasted. And "thistle" has little sharp spines.


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