or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, February 18, 2011

Head to Toe

Yesterday, Jim asked me if I thought "dishevelled" was descended from French "déshabillé", "sloppily or incompletely dressed". ("Habillé", "dressed", is also the ancestor of the English word "habiliment" and a distant cousin of "habit".) Instinctively I said "No," but it isn't a ridiculous question, because it takes no imagination at all to see how the French original could be turned into the English word over the course of a few centuries, and the meanings of the words overlap to a considerable degree, the only real exception being that "dishevelled" is often used to describe the state of someone's hair, while "déshabillé" refers only to clothing.

And with good reason! "Dishevelled" is actually descended from the French "chevel", "hair" (plural "cheveux"); a state of dishevelment originally referred to untamed, undressed hair, and a hundred years or so later--in the early 1600s--began to be used to describe a state of disorder in the clothing as well as the hair.

Now, "habit". In an interesting coincidence, "habit" refers to both clothing and behaviour, and so does the related pair of words "custom" and "costume": you may think of it as being that someone's costume is what they are accustomed to wearing, and likewise their habit is what they are in the habit of wearing. Nowadays, of course, "habit" as clothing refers only to the habiliment worn by nuns and monks, and "costume" refers to clothing worn on special occasions, but when the words originally entered the language they were much broader.

"Habit" is from Latin "habere", "to have", and pretty much from day one in English it meant the things that someone would have on or in their person or their personality: their dress, demeanour, manner of doing things. That hasn't really changed much, has it? Only one thing about it is really new: the sense of "addiction", as "drug habit", which isn't much more than a hundred years old.


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