Saturday, November 17, 2001

Words in writing

A school child comes home in a quandary. "Is a page one side of a paper or both sides?" he wonders. Ten marks depended on the answer. The dictionary yielded a surprise. A page can mean one side of a sheet of paper or it can mean both. The word page came to English in the late sixteenth century from the Latin pangere, to fasten, via French. So, what is a leaf? A leaf is defined as ‘a single thickness of paper, especially in a book, with each side forming a page’ (The New Oxford Dictionary of English). It gets, as Alice would say, "curious and curiouser". Everyday usage has found a way out. Both sides are a leaf and a single side, a page. The ten marks were awarded, after all!

There are so many words to do with writing which language-users are not even aware of. Samuel Butler once said, "Words are like money; there is nothing so useless, unless when in actual use." One such word is longueur, a tedious passage in a work of literature or performing art. It comes from Old French longor, a protracted discussion, which originated from long, Latin longus. Locus classicus, a passage from a classic or standard work that is cited as an illustration or example, comes from Latin locus, place, and Latin classicus, belonging to the highest class.

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American English
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Foreigners, come to stay
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Word clusters
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In the same vein
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The cyber family
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Italian friends
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Random words
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Mortal practices, immortal words
June 9, 2001
Passage of words
May 26, 2001

The humble paperback can get a kick out of being called an opisthograph, a book having writing on both sides of the leaves. Opisthograph comes from the Latin opisthographus which originated from the Greek opisthographos, opistho, back and graph, writing. How happy would a reporter be to be called a prosateur? A prosateur is a person who writes prose, especially as a livelihood, and comes from the Italian prosatore. A prosateur may write a pandect, a comprehensive digest or a complete treatise. In Roman times, a pandect was a complete body of laws, a legal code, or a digest of Roman civil law, compiled for the emperor Justinian in the sixth century A.D. Pandect comes from the Latin pandectes, encyclopedia, which came from the Greek pandektes, all-receiving.

Variorum editions are very popular with bright scholars. Varorium comes from the Latin edito cum notis varorium, which means an edition with notes of various persons. Today, a varorium edition would carry notes by various scholars or editors, or would be an edition containing various versions of a text.

Etymologically, a writer is a cutter. Write is related to the German reissen, meaning tearing. The earliest form of writing involved cutting marks on stone or wood and the same meaning was carried over even when writing came to be associated with pen and ink. It comes from the Germanic writan, which gives us writ, but the whole story of the word's birth is lost somewhere in the mists of time.


The act of writing dominates the Hindi language in many ways. Whereas the Persian kalam occurs in many idioms like kalam chumna (appreciating a writing), lekhak becomes ludicrous when applied to a clerk or accountant as in lekha-jokha. Kismat kaa likha hua is popularly used for holding fate accountable, haathon ki lakiren is also used in the same sense.

This feature was published on November 10, 2001