or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Stretch

Newspapers just don't care any more, do they? Leverage your name to make people think you still have a believable voice, make it look at least somewhat visually appealing to keep people coming back so you can shove more ads at them, chuck any old thing on the page or the screen without any real editorial oversight, and hope nobody notices the deficiencies, which there are guaranteed to be.

Here's a headline from a story today in the Globe and Mail:

Yeah, that famous American actor Billy Bob Thorton.

He may have acted like a complete douche in that CBC Radio interview, but when you're writing about him, you still have to spell his name correctly.


Last weekend I went to see my all-time favourite opera, "Lucia di Lammermoor", in the cinema for the second time. (Anna Netrebko is not my idea of a great coloratura singer, but even an imperfectly cast Lucia is better than none, and the Edgardo was very good. It'll be on PBS this coming Wednesday if you want to catch it.) Yesterday I listened to four different recordings of Act I, Scene 2, yes, really. And just as I was heading in to work it struck me that a word in that scene was odd--at least for English.

After Lucia has begged Edgardo not to tell her brother of their clandestine love affair, Edgardo says, "Intendo!", which means, in this context, "I understand," or, approximately, "Oh, I get it." (You can read the whole libretto here, if you have a mind to.) This suddenly struck me as very peculiar, since "intend" in English, which must surely be related to the Italian word, has no point of contact with it at all in meaning.

I know just enough Italian (more than a house cat in Wales, less than a one-year-old in Palermo) to guess that the infinitive of "intendo" is "intendere", which is what it turned out to be. That means that the etymology is presumably Latin "in-" plus "tendere", "to stretch", from which we also get the stretchy tendons on our bodies, the tendrils which stretch out from a plant, and so many more words.

The real puzzle is how "intendo" is related to "tendere", because there doesn't seem to be any connection between the one and the other. Somewhat less baffling is how English "intend" ended up mean "to plan to do something", but only because the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the "[s]ense of 'have as a plan' (1390) was present in Latin."

Google Translate may have its problems, but it does give a nice list of meanings for "intendere":

be an expert
be going to
get on with
know about

Three of them ("be going to", "intend", "mean") line up pretty well with the English usage of the word, and "know about" is an approximation of the sense used in the libretto. (It's also used in the libretto in a slightly different sense, closer to "hear": it seems to mean "perceive"--"Ben chiari e tristi nel tuo dir presagi intendo!", roughly "I clearly see terrible omens about your future".) There is also the expression "lasciar intendere", which means, as far as I know, "let it be understood".

It's not as if English doesn't have verbs that display a wide variety of senses, either. "Make" has quite a large number, and some of them are so idiomatic as to be almost unrecognizable: you can make money, merry, legislation, friends, dinner, trouble, war, sense, or a difference, she'll make a good teacher one day, ham makes a delicious Easter feast, and now I think I'll make like a banana and split.


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