or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Our dear friend Rebecca got married today, and this gent here

was the best man, and no, I am absolutely not kidding. (Perhaps if Becca gives me permission, I'll post a picture or two from the ceremony to prove it, and tell you the story behind it into the bargain.)

Anyway, as Jim and I were getting dressed this morning--7:30 this morning, because we and a few other friends of the bride's somehow got shanghaied into decorating the hall, because Rebecca is very sweet and very convincing and also generally gets what she wants and we are frankly pushovers--I noticed that the hanger for my suit-jacket had a word printed on it, and that word is PROTOCOL, the name, presumably, of the company that made the jacket; they like to remind you of these things.

Now, it is obvious that the first half of "protocol" means "first"; "protos" looks Greek, and is, and means the first of something. The proton got its name from...well, it's actually sort of complicated, but you can read about it on Wikipedia, as usual. The figure of speech called hysteron proteron more or less means "last first". And the prefix "proto-" means the first of something: "proto-human", for example, or "protozoon", "first animal".

But the second half? That's kind of mystery, and it remained a mystery until I got home this afternoon. I just couldn't make any sense of it: when I found out the answer, I could have smacked myself, but not really, because even if you know the word that it comes from, you still don't know why.

As it turns out, "-col" is related to French "colle", which means "glue", from Latin "colla", with the same meaning. The word also appears in some English words: "collagen", "glue-maker", for instance, the substance that holds the human body together, and also "colloid", "gluelike", a word referring to many diverse things such as blood, mayonnaise, opal, Styrofoam, cigarette smoke, and soapsuds, which all have this in common: they are composed of one substance suspended in another. (An opal is actually water dispersed throughout a solid: this also describes gelatin, and in fact opal is correctly called not a mineral, but a mineraloid gel. Because of this, an opal can be ruined by drying out, and should be immersed in water from time to time.)

So: knowing that "protocol" ought to mean "first glue", how can we make any sense of this, also knowing that "protocol" means "a code of behaviour and etiquette"?

We can't, of course, because the word has changed its meaning over the centuries, and also because it has other meanings in English--protocols are also the formalized plans for something or the methods of achieving it, and a protocol can also be a preliminary draft. This suggests the sense of "first" that we're looking for, and it hints at the real source: Middle Latin "protocollum", the table of contents of a document, and so "protocol" isn't so much "first glue" as it is "first, glued", literally the first page which is glued onto the rest of the volume.


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