or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Home Truths

One of the most endearing things about etymology is its habit of expanding to fill more space than you would have thought possible.

Today I had a lovely customer who wanted to frame a piece of her own art as a donation to a riding club. We got to talking, and I eventually discovered that she was from Scotland (not that I couldn't have guessed from her accent), a place called Prestwick. It sounded very nice, so I naturally wanted to look it up, and also, as is my way, to see the etymology of the place name. Prestwick, it turns out, means "priest's farm": "preost wic". The "preost" part meaning "priest" is obvious enough, but what of "wic"?

"Wic", as seen in place names ending in "-wick" (such as Gatwick, which means "goat farm") and also places ending in "-wich" (Greenwich, Norwich), ultimately derives from Latin "vicus", "village". I think three words are likely to come to an English speaker's mind at the sight of "vicus": "vicious", "vicinity" and "vicar", only one of which is related; "vicinity" is traced through "vicinus", "neighbour", and then to "vicinitas", its adjectival form, "of neighbours or a neighbourhood". ("Vicar" is from "vicis", "an office", and "vicious" is from "vitium", "a fault".)

But "wic" did not start out meaning "farm" or even "village". It began its life as Indo-European "weik-", meaning "clan", and took root in a number of languages; Persian, Gothic, Sanskrit, and Celtic, not to mention Latin "vicus" and the intimately linked Greek "oikos", meaning "house". (It's hard to see the relationship if you don't know that the "v-" in Latin was pronounced like our "w-", and "wicus" is very obviously the cousin to "oikos". It's also amusing to think that what English speakers untrained in Latin think of as an Italianate "veni, vidi, vici" with its "v-" and "-ch-" sounds was actually pronounced much more like "weenie, weedy, weaky".)

And Latin also had a "weik-" word meaning "house": "villa", which we still use to this day, and which "village" also comes from, via Italian, in which it meant, depending on context, "house", "country house", or, to get back to where we started from, "farm".

The Wikipedia page for Prestwick contains the following sentence:

Incidentally, to the north of Prestwick is the small village of Monkton.

Incidentally, indeed. The sentence has no relationship to anything else on the page, it doesn't link to anything else, and so it is entirely inconsequential, except for one thing: I live in a small city called Moncton, as if that sentence were put on the page just for me to discover this evening. How eerie!


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