or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, December 06, 2010


So on Sunday Jim and I were out running a few errands, and as expected the streets were full of cars and the malls were full of people, and as Jim and I don't celebrate Christmas, we could watch it all from a bemused and perhaps just slightly superior distance. I made some comment about the Christmas frenzy, and then it occurred to me, as it so often does, that I didn't know the source of the word that had just left my mouth.

"Frenzy" sounds sort of French, doesn't it? You can imagine some predecessor looking like "frenzie" or "frenessye" or something. And that turns out to be true: the word is French. But it's a lot more than that.

"Frenzy", or "phrenzy", is a very old word, dating from the mid-1300s: we did in fact adapt it from the French word "frenesie". Now, what about that "ph-" spelling, you may ask, and well you might: I know I did. And the reason it is there is that its original source is a Greek word, "phrenitikos", which, if you look closely, is obviously the source of "frenetic", a word meaning, and of course related to, "frenzied". Now, "phren-" occurs in a few other English words, including "schizophrenia", obviously, and also "phrenology", the pseudoscientific and antiquated analysis of one's personality through the bumps and contours of the skull. "Phren-", in fact, means "mind" or "reason", and so Greek "phrenitis" meant an inflammation of the brain, which of course would lead to strange and possibly frenzied behaviour. Another related English word was the splendid "phrenesis", "delirium", which made its bow in 1547 and is due for a revival, I think.

"Frenum" and "frenulum", though related to one another, are unrelated to "frenzy", surprisingly, considering that the main reason anybody untrained in medical language might know the word "frenulum" is that it is there is one just under the head of the penis (in an uncircumcised man). But no: the "phren-" that's all in your head has nothing to do with the "fren-" of "frenum", because "frenum" is the Latin word for "bridle", which a frenum presumably reminded some Roman doctor of. Human beings can have several other frena and frenula: there's one under the tongue and another in the brain, and women have one below the clitoris, exactly analogous to the one that men have. A frenulum, since you asked, is a little frenum. A frenum, since you asked, is a flap of skin that checks the movement of another part of the body.


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