or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, March 13, 2009

That Run-Down Feeling

I haven't posted in days, which always makes me feel bad, but I've been busy at work (inventory) and I haven't posted to my other blog for a week and half, which makes me feel even worse, but what can you do?

Now, I was listening to The History of Ancient Rome on my trip to the supermarket today, and I won't bore you with the details, but the lecturer mentioned something called the "cursus honorum", literally "course of honours", and the I was immediately distracted by a whirlwind of words flooding through my head, because "cursus" is so obviously the relative and/or progenitor of a whole wad of English words, some of which I'm sure will also occur to you if you think about it for more than a couple of seconds.

The very first word that came into my head wasn't one that probably occurred to you right away--we'll get to that--but instead was French "courir", "to run", because of the way the lecturer pronounced "cursus". "Courir" is self-evidently the parent of "courier", literally "runner".

Immediately after that, I thought of the word "cursive", which had never occurred to me before, for some reason: it was clearly so named because cursive script is all run together rather than being formed of unconnected letters.

After that came "cursor" (which one would think would be the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing "cursus", except possibly "curses", which is probably unrelated), and I could not quite figure out why that should be named a runner, since it doesn't really run: we move it instead. But what we think of as a cursor, the little arrow or hand or other indicator that we drag around the computer screen, isn't the original sense of a computer cursor: that was the little blinking bar that indicates where text is going to appear when we type. That cursor in turn got its name from the indicator on a slide rule, which it resembles (at least a little). And that cursor...well, I don't quite know why it got called that, unless someone thought that it ran back and forth on the slide rule, which I suppose, in a way, it does.

Then, of course, came "cursory", which I assumed came from the fact that when you give something a cursory glance, you run your eyes over it.

Then, let's see. "Course", of course. That seemed pretty self-evident: a course is something you run on, a university course is a series (a run) of lectures. "Of course", a moment's thought suggested, must have come about as a contraction of the phrase "as a matter of course", with "course" having its usual sense of "run", in this case "the way things are run". In fact, every sense of the word, and every word containing "course" such as "discourse" or "recourse", is related.

That was all I could come up with in a few minutes. There are others. Lots of others. The sense of running is pretty basic, probably one of the top ten or so verbs, and so the Indo-European root "kers-", "to run", could be expected to find its way into lots of words in lots of languages: it certainly did in English. In addition to all the words mentioned above, offshoots of "kers-" include "current", something which runs (a rivulet, a jolt of electricity) or a description of something that's happening (running) right now. as well as "occurrence", the noun for that same thing happening; and "currency", originally "having the quality of flowing or running", later specified to mean the flow of money and then narrowed down to the money itself.

In Spanish, a corrida is a bullfight, earlier the run in which the fight was staged; this in turn suggests English "corridor", which runs between rooms and through a building.

A little clutch of words referring to things that run on wheels also sprang from "kers-": car, cart, chariot, and carriage. Also part of this family, believe it or not, is "carpenter", "cart-maker". Something else that runs may also have come from this source (though the etymology is not certain): "horse", which is plausible because k-sounds have been known to shift to h-sounds in Germanic languages. (It's part of something called Verner's Law, and I don't pretend to understand it completely because I am not a professional, but it's the reason that Latin "centum" showed up in English as "hundred", which you may compare with German "Hundert". It also, of course, makes an appearance in its original guise as "cent" and "century".) Also related: the cargo which these things carry, and the word "carry" itself.

And one more. "Career" originally meant (and still occasionally means) "to run at top speed"; now, idiomatically, it means the way you run a part of your life--the course which your working life follows.


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