Sunday, November 28, 2010

How Some Words Are Related

The words we use have long histories. Some are straightforward, but many have interesting stories behind them. I have seen many lists of interesting etymologies, but I have very few lists containing pairs of words that are related in some way. The following pairs have some interesting stories about how they are related.

Cybernetic and Governor

The words “cybernetic” and “governor” come from the same word. That puts Arnold Schwarzenegger in a whole new light, doesn’t it? Cybernetic, while popularly known in the context of biotechnology, is to do with the science of regulatory systems. This can mean the way computer programs control robotics, or how social groups are arranged into hierarchies. The word “cybernetics” comes straight from the Greek word “kubernetes”, in English. The Greek “K” (kappa) is generally turned into a “C” in English, and the Greek “U” (upsilon) becomes a “Y” in English (cyclops is a perfect example). In Greek, a kubernetes was the pilot of a ship, the person who controlled how the ship moved.

The Greeks were better sailors than the Romans, so it did not take long for the Romans to use Greek terminology on Roman ships. The Romans, however, favored the “G” sound over the “K” sound, and “kubernetes” became gubernator. From there, the word started to mean “the guy in charge.” Centuries passed, and the Latin-speaking Franks, who lived in one particular region of Gaul, imposed their pronunciation of Latin on the region, which they now called “France” or “land of the Franks.” Just as the Romans preferred the “G” sound to the “K,” the French preferred the “V” sound to “B”, in this particular word, giving us “governor.” The French “governor” passed into English after the Norman invasion (more on that later).

Dexterity and Sinister

Unlike the two previous words, dexterity and sinister do not come from the same word, but were, in fact, opposites. Dextera in Latin means “right hand”, and Sinistra in Latin means “left hand.” Both words acquired their modern connotations in antiquity. The right hand was the hand that held a soldier’s weapon. “Right-handed” became slang for being skillful or agile, giving dexterity its modern meaning millenia before it was reduced to another stat on an Orcish archer’s ability score.

Sinister’s modern meaning comes from fortune-telling. Augurs (not to be confused with auger, a word discussed a little later) were Roman priests who specialized in divining the will of the gods by watching the flight of birds. The number, direction, origin and species of birds seen, all had some meaning to the augur. Birds seen in the augur’s right field of vision were auspicious, or favorable, while birds seen off the left shoulder were unfavorable, thus “sinister” acquired the meaning of harmful or evil.

Shirt and Skirt

The Anglo-Saxons who invaded and settled Great Britain spoke a dialect of West Germanic, the largest of the three branches of Germanic languages. In the 11th century, Vikings from Denmark invaded and settled throughout what would become modern England, eventually controlling half of the region. These Danes spoke a dialect of North Germanic. The two languages were very similar, but had a number of important differences in pronunciation. Words that had a sh pronunciation in Old English were given a sk pronunciation in Danish.

Both cultures wore a long, unisex frock. In Old English it was called a scyrte (pronounced shoor-teh), while in Danish it was called a skyrta (skoor-ta). As the two cultures mixed, Danish words found their way into the English vocabulary. The nearly identical words for the same object began to be used alongside each other. One came to mean the top half of a man’s outfit; the other came to refer to the bottom half of a woman’s outfit. The same thing happened to many other words, such as screech and shriek.

Gringo and Greek

The Greeks have never called themselves “Greek.” They have always referred to themselves as “Hellenes”, after the mythological figure Hellen (not to be confused with Helen of Troy). The word “Greek” comes from the Latin term “Graeci,” which means “the people from Graia,” the first Greek town the Romans encountered. Gringo, a derogatory word for non-Spanish speakers that is used in many Spanish-speaking areas, likely comes from Griego, the Spanish rendering of Graeci. The word was originally a casual way of saying “foreigner” in Spanish, not unlike the English expression “it’s Greek to me.” After the Spanish expansion into the Americas, the word began to take on a more derogatory context.

Galaxy and Lettuce

The word for milk in Greek was galax (or galactos, depending on whether it was the subject of a sentence or not), while the word in Latin was lac (or lactis, again, depending on whether it was the subject of a sentence). Both Greek and Latin developed from proto-Indo-European, and the two words come from the same source. The Greek term, however, had an extra syllable.

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, is named after its milky-white appearance in the sky. The word galaxy developed out of the Greek galaxias, with the word galax as its root. The actual term “Milky Way” is a translation of the Latin “via lactea.” Lettuce comes from the Latin word for lettuce, “lactuca.” The word developed from lac (lactis) because the juice of the plant has a milky white appearance. Speakers of Old French pronounced “lactuca” as “laitue.” The English term, developed from the plural “laitues,” was eventually spelled “lettuce.”

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