or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Go Big or Go Home

The company for which I work is American, so naturally some of the official signage--backstage, at least, where customers don't get to go--is in both English and Spanish. We go through so many cardboard boxes in the run of a week that there's a massive compactor in the warehouse, and it is big and scary, so much so that nobody under the age of 18 is allowed to touch it. Here's what the English sign on it says:

Do not operate, load or unload compactor unless 18 years or older

and here's the Spanish translation:

No opere, carge or descarge el compactadora a menos de que sea mayor de 18 aƱos

(I might have written down a word or two slightly wrong: if there's a mistake, it's almost certainly mine and not the sign's.)

The word "mayor" struck me as particularly interesting, not only because it looks exactly like an English word to which it might well be related, but because it also calls to mind other words in other languages. So let's have a look at that, shall we?

These are the things that I thought before I even got around to looking it up when I got home. First, "mayor" clearly means "more than" in this context, and that makes me think of French "meilleur", "better" (in its way a synonym of "more than"), which, though its spelling is very different, is pronounced almost the same: "may-ur", more or less. Second, the idea of "more than" suggests not only "better" but also "bigger", and Spanish "mayor" makes me think of English "major", in the sense of "big" or "biggest", from Latin "major", "greater", which also calls to mind Italian "maggiore". And finally, of course, English "mayor" is the chief of a town or city,a person who could be considered the greatest of its citizens.

Did I miss anything important?

A few things, maybe. Latin "major" is the comparative form of "magnus", "great". English "mayor" doesn't come from Spanish (no real surprise), but instead from French "maire"; the coincidental spellings are just that, ordinary coincidences. And all these words come from Indo-European "meg-", "great". So let's have a look at some of its other offspring.

All the "mega-" words in English that you can think of come from this source, of course: they're from Greek. The "mag-" or "maj-" words having anything to do with size or importance come from Latin: "magnificent", "majesty" and "magisterial", "majuscule" (the opposite of "minuscule"), "magnify", and probably even "magic", which seems to stem from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning "to have power". And there's a clutch of Sanskrit words that begin with "mah-" that also derive from this source, including "maharajah" and "maharani", "mahatma", and "mahout" (a person who drives an elephant, and would presumably have to have some kind of personal magnetism or other power to be able to control such an enormous beast).

The one word you might have been expecting to see here is "magnet", which, as it turns out, is not related. If you wanted to concoct an etymology you could easily do so, because we alredy have the sense of "power" in IE "meg-" words, but we know where "magnet" comes from, and it's not "meg-". The stone which attracts other stones gets its name from Greek "Magnos lithos", "the stone from Magnesia", Magnesia being a region of Thessaly which derives its name from an earlier city, Manisa, on which Magnesia was actually built. Besides, since Greek used "meg-" instead of "mag-", the connection to anything etymologically related to IE "meg-" is unlikely.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You corrected Jen on the cakewrecks blog that the globe cake is Epcot in America. Wrong its NOT Epcot Its the Spaceship Earth! Epcot is the park it resides in.

Friday, May 22, 2009 3:10:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Yeah, me and about a hundred other people.

I'm not a big fan of that sort of mandatory waiting list in blog comments, because it means that a lot of comments pile up, everyone thinks they're the first person to make a particular point, and a whole lot of people end up saying the same thing.

I did mistakenly say that the object depicted was called the Epcot Center, but in my defense, Wikipedia has a picture of Spaceship Earth captioned "EPCOT Center's grand opening on October 1, 1982", so it's pretty easy for people who have never been there to assume that the big sphere is actually something called the EPCOT Center, as I did.

Friday, May 22, 2009 3:36:00 PM  

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