Ever since I saw the movie Night Shift , staring Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton, I have had a fascination with breaking down complex words into their components and root words to gain a better understanding of the word and its origins and/or originators. (Actually it was well before this, but it makes for a good story! ) If you haven’t seen the scene where Keaton breaks down the word “prostitution” you’re missing a good laugh. Here is the YouTube link: Night Shift – Prostitution Scene (Michael Keaton)
So, lets take a look at a word that’s very near and dear to all our hearts: etymology! Taking a cue from the master of etymology, Chuck (Michael Keaton’s character), we will first divide the word into it’s root parts: ET/YM/OL/OGY. (Smile, this should be fun!)
ET - Comes from the Latin et hoc genus omne meaning “And all that sort of thing”, which was promptly shortened to et due to the popularity of the term on copious Senatorial monuments and fast food menus, and a serendipitous shortage of stone chisels in Rome - the fallout of a heated labor dispute between blacksmiths and their employer, the Acme Chisel Corporation LLC (which at the time did not mean limited liability company, but 50/50/100, a reference to either a payment or Senatorial bribery schedule).
The issue at hand: Acme had gained the government chisel contract with a ridiculously low bid and was trying to make blacksmiths work overtime for no additional compensation. The Roman blacksmiths eventually won the dispute with help from the Stone Masons local, who had mistaken the lack of chisels for support of their own strike for better medical and more time off for chisel elbow a common repetitive motion injury prevalent among blacksmiths forced to carve out et hoc genus omne over and over again. On a side note: We owe the irate owner of Acme Chisel, Ferris Maximus, for yet another (derogatory) term which has stuck with us to this day: ”chiselers”, although some scholars contend it was first used by the blacksmith local guild master Fistus Maximus, to describe the owner of Acme Chisel.
Now, you may ask, what kind of word starts with “and”, and what “sort of thing” could they possibly be talking about, when we haven’t seen any other part of the word? I’m glad you asked, though you might not be. When the term etymology was first coined the “et” part of the word came at the end, thus ymologyet. (Originally it was spelled ymologyette, where ette denotes that it was ”all that sort of little thing” because there weren’t yet that many words in anybody’s vocabulary and most of the words were short. Some academics contend that the best translation of ette is: “a little like that sort of thing”, which had more to do with the lack of certainty than the size of the common vocabulary. - A note of caution: Don’t judge the people of that time for their lack of “long” words in their vocabulary before you try to write a few sentences in marble.)
YM - Like et, ym comes down to us from the Latins (or Romans). The “Y” beginning is itself a clue to its meaning. The letter is not quite an ”I” and not quite a ”V”, which of course were often used for a numbers one and five, and later the letter we know as “U” (where do you think the English got it?). So there you have it, the uncertain “Y-I-V-U” letter followed by the letter “M”, which was of course also used to dubious effect as a letter. Thus: ”UM” as in, “I’m not sure what to say and I’m stalling.” But in those early heady days in Rome, the notion of being uncertain was officially frowned upon and so the true meaning of ”UM” in this context was actually a way of saying, “Hey you! You know all those funny things that have been bothering you, like our inconsistent use of letters as numbers, and who the heck is making up all these little strange sounding words, and how in Hades am I going to learn all the ridiculous rules to conjugating verbs – whatever that is?…This (word) is about that!” Of course, “YM” or “UM” became so popular that it came to refer to anything that was a puzzlement, and led to it’s use in the word “FORUM” (meaning “for–um–”, which of course was the name of the place where their Senate met).
OL - Originally, the Romans did not have a letter “O” for fear of confusing it with their letter “Q”, which I’m sure you’ll admit was the right choice, as “Q” is a way cooler looking letter, though hard to form in cursive (especially in stone). So this first letter is in fact the result of a lazy French translation of the symbol for a circle. The Romans frequently used the circle symbol to draw around their military units in formation on maps to represent a wooden barbican/fort, no matter what the actual shape. Later on, when generals drew the location of their desired fort they would draw the circle and say, “Everything goes in here.” The circle eventually became a short hand symbol for “encompassing everything”. The letter “L”, not to be confused with the number “L”, when written by itself meant simply ”Latin”. So the circle-”L” meant of course “all Latin”. Fortunately, the concept of zero (0) would not be introduced to Italy for a few years, so the combination of something looking like a “zero” and a “fifty” was never in question. Romans being Romans, and quite full of themselves, saw the world as theirs - all theirs - ”all Latin” so the ”OL” also came to mean “all” and that is why we pronounce it that way to this day. To them (the Romans) it also meant “all languages”.
OGY – Again, we are met with another “all-encompassing” circle symbol. Some scholars argue that this symbol is meant only to emphasize the preceding “L” for Latin, but a quick study of the Roman numbering system reveals that the Romans generally had more sense than to modify a previous letter, knowing how confusing that could all be. The following “G” is a mark that the Government officially endorsed the word and was a sort of guaranty by the state that the word was important and followed certain linguistic rules (to date, despite extensive excavations, the complete rules have never been unearthed). So what we end up with is something akin to ”the whole Government approves of this word”, followed by the non-committal “Y”, which was added at the insistence of half the Senate to provide for some legal wiggle room.
So now that we have successfully broken this marvelous word into its root components and explored their rich meanings I know you will feel much more at ease slipping “etymology” into your every-day general conversation without the fear that someone might giggle or spew milk out their nose.
Please feel free to leave your stories of language conquest in the name of etymology. If you’d like to leave a suggestion - a word that’s stumped you - for your humble scholar to address in a future post, please do so! :)