or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, August 06, 2009


Today at the gym I was listening to a Teaching Company audio lecture, AS USUAL, and really, they should PAY ME for PIMPING THEIR PRODUCTS but they're REALLY GOOD. This one is "Great Battles of the Ancient World", and military history is really not my thing but I've listened to a couple of the lecturer's series before and enjoyed them, so I figured what the hell. (Also, PURELY BY COINCIDENCE, this lecture series happens to be on sale right now and it is a BARGAIN and I must reiterate that the company is NOT PAYING ME and I guess I will STOP SHOUTING NOW.)

So the instructor used the word "host" to refer to a large army, and it occurred to me that there are three count 'em three different meanings of the word in English and they're surely unrelated, because the meanings don't have any overlap, but where did they all come from?

The "host" in the sense of "large army" or, more modernly, "any large number of things" comes from Latin "hostis", "enemy, stranger", and don't tell me that you didn't instantly think of the word "hostile" when you saw that, because they're obviously related.

The "host" that means "someone who tends to guests" comes from Latin "hospitem", which meant both "guest" and "host" (confusingly), and don't tell me that you didn't instantly think of the words "hospital" and "hospitable" (or "hospitality") when you saw that, because they're obviously related.

Here's the shocker, though: the two words are actually the same word, and if you think about it, you can see why. A host is, or can be, someone who takes in and takes care of a stranger (the manager, say, of a hostel, another related word), and an army is composed of enemies or strangers--often, in the ancient world, the same thing--and both words came ultimately from Indo-European "ghostis-", "stranger", and don't tell me you didn't instantly think of the word "ghost" when you saw that, and therefore get fooled, as I was, because "ghostis-" is not the source of "ghost": "ghois-", "to be frightened", is.

So we have a host that is an army of strangers and a host who attends to strangers in his care, and what of the third host, the communion wafer? That one's from Latin "hostia", "sacrifice", and if I were to tell you that that one is also related to the other two hosts, because you sacrifice to the gods the enemies you have captured in war, would you believe me? Because that, in fact, appears to be just where it came from, and therefore all three instances of the word "host" in English, however disparate their meanings, appear to be, in the end, one and the same.


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