Saturday, June 15, 2002

Fiddling with words, again!

LANGUAGE and its users constantly get together to play tricks on unwitting etymologists. A typical case concerns the words elliptic and elliptical. Both are adjectives and sound almost the same. What about their meanings? Elliptic is from ellipse which means an oval shape. Ellipse comes from the Greek elleipein, meaning leave out, fall short. Elliptical comes from ellipsis which is used in two senses. One, an ellipsis is the omission of superfluous words in speech or writing leading to an elliptical style or an extreme economy of words. Two, an ellipsis is a set of dots indicating the omission of words. To make things worse, the two adjectives are often narrowed down to one spelling, elliptical. What could be common to a style of writing and speaking, a grammatical term and a geometrical shape? The clue lies in the etymology. The root elleipein, fall short of, holds the key. An ellipse falls short of a circle, an ellipsis falls short of words, whatever the reason.

When a reader says, ‘I read Roots, I yawned!’ the sentence uses parataxis. Parataxis is the placing of clauses or phrases one after another, without connecting words. It comes from the Greek parataxis, composed of para, beside and taxis, arrangement. Paragraph also contains the Greek para, by the side of. In the earliest manuscripts the pages were set solid and without any breaks. In order to help the reader, the Greeks placed a short horizontal mark below the line that introduced a new subject. They called this mark a paragraphos, from para, beside, and graphos, written.

Fiddling with words
May 25, 2002
May 11, 2002
Words in twos
April 27, 2002
April 13, 2002
March 16, 2002
And the romance goes on...
March 2, 2002
Less etymology, more romance
February 16, 2002
Random tales"
February 2, 2002
History and meaning
January 19, 2002
Psychiatry and Greek
January 5, 2002

A ghost word is a word that has come into a language through the repeated misreading of a manuscript, a typographical error, or a misunderstanding. Hyperbaton, especially for emphasis, of a word order other than the expected or usual one, as in ‘Finish my work, I will’, comes from the Greek huperbaton, to step over, and is made up of huper, over and bainein, to step.

As compared with the word mother tongue, vernacular is not a very widely used term. Perhaps, the reason lies in its etymology. Vernacular is built upon the Latin vernaculus, meaning native or domestic, which comes from verna, a slave born at home. The vernacular literature of Europe in the late thirteenth century was the literature of native dialects, not of Latin, the scholar’s language. The word rostrum also has a bit of a story to tell. Rostrum means a bird’s beak. Or, is it the raised structure used by an orator? The Latin rodere, meaning gnaw, grew into the word rostrum or beak. Rostrum also meant the beak or prow of a ship. The speaker’s platform in the Roman Forum was decorated with the rostra or beaks of the ships that had been captured in war, leading to the term rostrum.



Peeping into the past yields pleasant surprises. The Hindi word sahitya today stands for literature. There is a bhartiya sahitya, Hindi sahitya, raajnaitik sahitya and so on. Sahitya is originally a Sanskrit word which means ‘to be together’, and comes from the root sahit, meaning included. Looking at the vast variety of genres in literature, it is an apt word indeed!

This feature was published on June 8, 2002