or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Touch of Evil

One of the nice things about knowing a bit of Latin, if you are the sort of person who likes to analyze words every now and then, is that when you have built up a big enough store of Latin roots, you can often pick an unfamiliar but Latinate word apart and make an educated guess as to its meaning, and it is an enormous pleasure to be right.

I was in the showing idly looking at a bottle of dandruff shampoo, which claimed to be a sure cure for dandruff and seborrhea. "Seborrhea," I thought. The second half is evidently Latin "-rhea", "flow", as in "diarrhea" and "rheostat" (a device for controlling the flow of electricity). The first half? Clearly must be related to "sebum", skin oil, so seborrhea is an excessive production of oil, or, by extension, a scalp condition caused by that. Which in fact it turned out to be: seborrheic dermatitis is dry, scaly skin which usually manifests itself--ironically, you would think--in sebum-rich areas of the skin such as the scalp and face.

Sometimes, though, the root is more elusive than that.

The word that popped into my head a little while ago and demanded to be stripped bare and examined was "contaminate". The first syllable is our old Latin friend "con-", "with". The rest of it, though, did not make any sense to me, and with good reason, as it turns out; it's a much-altered variation of "tangere", "to touch", because, presumably, someone diseased (though not with seborrhea, which is not contagious) who touches you will contaminate you. ("Contagion" is also related.)

"Dandruff", by the way, is a bit of a mystery, at least the first half of it. The second half is from a Norse ancestor, "hrufa", "scab", from a word meaning "leper". Yuck!


OpenID omegamom said...

You might trace "dander"..."dander" + "hrufa"?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 3:29:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Except that nobody knows where "dander" came from, either. It's really weird. "Dander" in the sense of "particles of animal skin that cause allergies in humans" might be a fanciful extension of "dander", or "dunder", meaning "product of sugar fermentation",but that's kind of a stretch. Yet where else could it have come from? And where could that "dander" have come from? (Possibly it's related to "redundant" in the sense of "overflowing",which fermentation can cause to happen), but it really is a mystery.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 3:45:00 PM  

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