or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Thine Own Self

As I said yesterday, the Indo-European reflexive pronoun "s(w)e-" has, through a larger-than-usual array of languages (all the usual suspects except French, and then some), given English a massive clutch of words which relate to the sense of the self, or, a slightly abstracted remove, the sense of the possession of something ("one's own"). (I find that I oversold the case a little yesterday: I said that "every single one of the words has a clear link to the original meaning", but that's not exactly true; a couple of the words have changed in meaning enough that that the sense of reflexivity is diluted or absent. But for the most part, what you see is what you get.)

Through the Germanic languages, we have "sibling", one's own flesh and blood, and "gossip", which originally meant "godparent", later "friend", and now the sort of things that so-called friends do to you when you're not in the room. We also have "swain" and "boatswain", from a word meaning "one's own man".

Old Norse contributed "bustle", starting us off with "buask", "to make oneself ready", to which we added the frequentative suffix "-le" (which indicates frequent or quick repetition of a small action), so to bustle is to busily do various tasks in preparation for something.

From Irish Gaelic, we have the name of a political organization, Sinn Fein, which means "we ourselves".

From Sanskrit, we have "swami", "one's own master".

Greek, predictably, gave us a batch of words. "Idios", "private", gave rise to "idiom" (one's own way of speaking) the similar "idiosyncrasy" (one's own way of doing something) as well as "idiot", which started out as "idiotes", meaning "private citizen", literally "one's own person", but eventually came to mean an average person with no particular skill, and eventually someone with no skill, or sense, whatever. The most unexpected of the Greek contributions is probably "ethnic", which is to say "of one's own kind of people". It arose from Greek "ethnos", which came from IE "swedh-no", a clear descendant of "s(w)e-". If you've always suspected that "ethnic" and "ethic" were related, well, you're right: just as "ethnic" comes from "ethnos", "ethic" comes from "ethos", another "s(w)e-" relative meaning "one's own character or habit".

Latin, predictably, gave us a larger batch of words. "Suicide" and "sui generis" start with "sui-", the genitive form of "oneself". "Sed" and "se" gave a collection of words meaning in some sense "by oneself", among them "secede", "seclude", "segregate", "separate", secret", and "sever". "Solo" gave us another set, including "solo" itself, plus "sole", "solitary", and "desolation" and "sullen" (broodingly inward-turned), not to mention "soliloquy" and "solipsistic". Yesterday's "desuetude" comes from "suescere", "to accustom oneself"; other words from this root are "consuetude" and "custom", which are exact synonyms, as well as, believe it or not, "mastiff", which is an unexpected relation of "mansuetude", "mildness".


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