or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Written Word

Once again as I'm doing the dishes, my brain says, "Oh, for god's sake, read something, will you?", and so my eyes start scanning the little packages on the built-in shelf above the sink, boxes of freezer bags and plastic wrap and folder clips and the like, and looky there--a box of parchment paper. And the French word for "parchment" is "parchemin". And I ask myself, who stole it from whom?

Tough call. It would be easy to guess that the French was converted into the English, but on the other hand, "parch" looks to be a sturdy Old English sort of word, and "parchment" could therefore mean "the drying of", and since parchment is scraped, tanned, and dried animal skin used for writing, it's entirely plausible that we invented the word and then the French took it and ran with it.

But no, it was theirs to begin with, and it has a more complicated trajectory than you might anticipate. For starters, the Greek city of Pergamon, or Pergamum, invented the use of animal skin as a substitute for Egyptian papyrus. This surface came to be known in Latin as "charta Pergamena", "paper of Pergamon", and then just "pergamina". This word in Old French collided with "parche", which was a variation of Late Latin "parthica", short for "parthica pellis", which meant "Parthian leather", a valuable commodity in Roman times. "Pergamina" and "parche" eventually formed "parchemin", which Middle English took and converted, with the application of the standard "-ment" noun suffix (from Latin "-mentum"), into modern "parchment".

"Parch" is unrelated. It seems to be instead a variant of "perish"; isn't that nice and unexpected?


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