or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Past

I have a vivid memory from my school days: not so vivid that I remember every single humiliating detail, but clear enough. In French class, probably Grade 5, I hazarded a guess that the word "maintenant" meant something like "to maintain" or "to handle", and was thoroughly laughed at. By the teacher.

I suppose I should have know what the word meant at that point, because it's one of the most basic words in any language: it means "now: the present".

If the teacher could have gotten inside my head, though, my guess would have been entirely logical, because "main" means "hand" in French, and "tenant" is a form of the verb "tenir", "to hold", so "to handle" (hold in the hand), "to manipulate" (work with the hands), "to claim" (to take in hand), or any other of a raft of other possibilities are obvious if you don't know the correct answer. I didn't actually think it through in these terms at the time; it was just plain to me that that's what the word ought to mean.

I mention this only because today, thirty-odd years after the fact, the word "maintenant" popped into my head and I tore it apart and it finally occurred to me that my original guess in fact is what it does mean. "Now" is the period of time that you can hold in your hand, that you can handle, that you keep with you, as opposed to the past and the future, both equally out of reach in opposite directions.

"Maintanant", in case you don't speak any French, is pronounced approximately "man-t'-non", with the "-t-" just a wee glottal stop to indicate its existence and the "-n" at the end of the other two syllables thoroughly nasalized in the French manner. French likes to throw away sounds with even more abandon than English does: entire syllables can vanish into the ether. (The third person plural of the verb "devoir", "to have to", is "doivent", and it's pronounced "dwahv": the whole last syllable is just not there.)

Since the "-tenant" in "maintenant" derives from "tenir", it is natural to assume that English "tenant" is the essentially same word, and of course it is: a tenant is someone who holds land via a lease. "Tenir" comes from Latin "tenere", with the same meaning. There are quite a few "tenir" or "tenere" derivatives in English, including "tenacious", holding on tightly; "tenet", a principle you hold onto; "tenure", a position you have the right to hold; and the "-tain" constructions such as contain (to hold within), obtain (to get and hold), detain, retain, and, yes, maintain (to hold in the hand).

"Tenuous" is related, but in a slightly roundabout way, and for that we have to go to the Indo-European root "ten-", which means "to stretch". A tenuous claim isn't one that you don't have a good hold on; it's one that is stretched thin, that it would be a stretch to believe. "To stretch" became "to hold" because they both carry the sense, however metaphorically, of the effort of keeping something in place.


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