or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, March 02, 2009


I was listening to the History of Ancient Rome at the gym this morning, and the lecturer was talking about Roman nomenclature*. He might not actually have used the word "nomenclature", come to think of it, but if he didn't, the word still popped into my head, and therefore of course I was forced to wonder about its provenance.

The first half, "nomen-", was obviously related to English "name" (and French "nom"**, and German "Name"). The second part is less obvious. The only thing I could come up with was the taxonomical term "clade", which I knew was a grouping of an ancestor and all its descendants. I didn't see exactly how the two words could be related, but they sounded kind of alike, and "nomenclature" could possibly be construed to mean "naming of groups".

Unfortunately, I was barking up the wrong tree, etymologically. "Clade" is actually Greek, from "klados", and means "branch", because a clade is a branch on the enormous tree of evolutionary development. The "-clature" of "nomenclature" comes from Latin "calator", "[town] crier", which in turn comes from the verb "calare", "to call out". "Nomenclature" therefore translates as "name-calling", which is exactly what it is: the naming of things.

*What he said, in a nutshell, was that ancient Roman males had three names, and the middle one was the important one***. The first name, the praenomen, was like our given names, and there was a very small pool of them, which is why so many Romans seemed to be named Lucius and Quintus and the like. The middle name was the clan to which you belonged, and that was your primary identity. Because the praenomen was usually hereditary and the nomen always was, there would be lots of men named Tiberius Claudius or whatnot drifting around, so a third name, the cognomen, would be added to the end, a sort of subdivision of the clans. This began as a nickname but eventually became a full-fledged family name, so you could tell Marcus Valerius Britannicus from Marcus Valerius Dubitatus--same clan, different family.

**Actually, "nom" doesn't just mean "name" in French: it also means "noun", because the noun is the name of something. "Noun" in English, predictably, comes from the same place; Old French "nom" or "non", which became "noun" in the English-French hybrid language following the invasion of Britain.

***I don't expect anybody to get that reference.


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