or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, June 26, 2009


So there I was, filling the water-filtering pitcher, and as usual I filled the filtering part pretty much to the top and beyond, and naturally there formed (thanks to the wonders of surface tension) a dome of water before it had a chance to subside into the pitcher proper, and I recalled (and you may know) that this curve is called a meniscus, and then of course I realized that I didn't know where "meniscus" could possibly have come from, except that from the shape of it it was pretty definitely Latin.

Internet to the rescue! I now know, and soon you will too.

The first appearance of "meniscus" in English had nothing to do with water about to overflow its container. It was used instead to describe lenses, which generally have at least one convexly curved edge. (Some don't: you can make a lens with any combination of convex, concave, or flat--"plano"--surfaces.) The term "meniscus" was taken straight from Latin, which stole it from Greek "meniskos", which in turn is derived from "mene", "moon", and means "lunar crescent".

Well, that's that solved, then! But just looking at the word "moon" reminded me of something else that has struck me as odd for quite a long time. The German word for "moon" is "Mond", and you can see that the two words are related. But here's what baffled me: the French word for "world" is "monde". Isn't that a hell of a thing? The French and the German look so alike, and yet they mean such different, yet at the same time related, things!

The Germanic moon-words (which also include Dutch "maan" and Danish "måne") are related to the word "month", for the most obvious reason possible, and both words stem from Indo-European "me(n)ses-", which is also self-evidently the source of "menstrual", again for obvious reasons.

French "monde", on the other hand, comes from Latin "mundus", which meant not only "world" but also "universe", and the reason for this is not obvious. "Mundus" originally was an adjective which meant "clean, neat", and the universe was thought (for a very long time, actually) to be neatly ordered, with the Earth in the centre and everything else whirling around it in perfectly round orbits. However, it's not true, as is commonly thought, that all Greeks believed this Ptolemaic cosmology, although it was dominant in Western culture until the late 16th century: other Greeks followed the Pythagorean system, which held that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun.

Since "mundus" means "the world", "mundane" must mean "worldly", as opposed to "heavenly", and that is just what it does mean. It has taken on a shade of meaning in the intervening centuries (it was coined in the late fifteenth century): now it generally connotes "ordinary; commonplace". Just what we would expect of something that exists in the physical world as opposed to some theoretical world of wonders.


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