or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Unkindest Cut

Now, I believe I promised you "kes-".

It is an Indo-European root meaning "to cut", and since you know that cutting is a fairly basic concept (which means that the root is likely to spawn plenty of variants) and that "castrate" comes from it, you might be thinking that some other cutting words are from the same source, and you would be right, but you would probably not guess what most of the words are.

How about "chaste"? Yes, really. Latin "castus", "cut off from", gave rise to "caste" in the mid sixteenth century, a word meaning "a race of people", which is to say "people of pure stock", people cut off from contaminating outside influences, but much earlier than that (in the early days of the language, actually, the first part of the thirteenth century) it had sprung up as "chaste", from that same sense of purity.

How about the word "castle", a fortress heavily fortified and cut off from the outside world, and also place names ending in "-caster" or "-chester" such as Winchester and Doncaster? Same source. (And also the town of Cheshire, known for cheese and cats. A cat, anyway.)

Here comes a big tangle. "Quash", "to crush, to suppress", is from the Latin frequentative "quassare", "to shatter", from "quatere", "to shake", through French. ("Squash", with an almost identical meaning as "quash", is from "ex-" plus "quassare".) These come from, or are related to, Latin "cassus", "empty, void", in turn related to "castus", presumably because the...empty container has been cut off from its contents? I don't know, but the etymological link is sound. Bizarrely, "cask" and its (presumed) diminutive "casket" seem to be related through an uncertain chain of etymologic alterations; the stream of meanings is apparently something like "shattered - potsherd - pot - helmet - skull - container - container for wine". Though probably not quite in that order. Though who knows?

You would think that the verb "to cashier", which is to say "to dismiss", would somehow be related to the cashier who rings through your purchases, and yet they are from two completely different sources. The noun is from French "caissier", in turn from "caisse", "money-box", while the verb is from "casser", "to discharge", also "to break", from Latin "cassus", "void", in the sense of an annulment.


Post a Comment

<< Home