or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, July 27, 2012

Damn it All

In a nutshell: the A.V. Club reviewed an episode of Monty Python, that led me to the Wikipedia page for William Blake's poem which was turned into the gorgeous hymn "Jerusalem", and that in turn brought me to the word "contemn", which I had seen before but never really thought about.

It looks like "condemn", doesn't it? "Contemn" is in fact so rare, almost archaic, that it's easy to guess that it is an older version of the word that fell by the wayside, like "riband", which was displaced by "ribbon". But that, surprisingly, is not the case: "contemn" and "condemn" are different words with different etymologies and different meanings.

Both of them start out with "con-", which usually means "with" or "together" in Latin-derived words ("conjoin"), but sometimes denotes an intensifier instead ("commodious"), as it does in both these words. The more usual "condemn" is therefore an intensified version of "-demn", which, a moment's thought might suggest, is related to "damn". In fact, you might even have seen this version if you have ever read "The Scarlet Pimpernel":

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.

So "condemn" means "to damn utterly".

If you break up "contemn" into "con-" plus "-temn", however, you are going to be led down the wrong path, because "temn-" is going to make you think of "contempt", and the "tempt-" of "temptation" and the "-tempt" of "contempt" are in fact two different and unrelated words. It is traps like this that make etymology such an exciting field of study.

"Temptation" arises from the Latin verb "temptare", "to try out, to test", which also gave us "attempt". "Contempt", on the other hand, is from the verb "temnere", "to slight, to scorn", and so is an intensified version of scorn, and "contemn" means "to abhor and despise". I think the word is probably lost to us: I think that most people upon seeing it would assume that "condemn" was meant in its stead.


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