Saturday, March 8, 2003

Describing people

WHILE being a part of the human race, every person is unique in one way or another. There is a large family of words to describe people and today’s collection pays a tribute to the vast diversity within the species called homo sapiens. In future, tagging on labels to one’s fellow beings should not be much of a problem!

A reticent person is inclined to conceal thoughts, feelings, and personal affairs. Such a person is restrained or reserved in style. Reticent comes from the Latin reticere, a verb made up of re-, a prefix that expresses intense force and tacere, which means be silent.

A heterodox individual does not conform to accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs; originally, it referred to an individual who would not accept church dogma and doctrine. This word entered English via Latin in the seventeenth century, an age known for its political upheaval, triggered off by disruptions in the following of the dictates of the Roman Catholic Church. It comes from the Greek heteros (other) and doxa (opinion). Heterodox reinforces the etymologist’s thesis on the close relationship between language and history.

A living language
February 15, 2003
The New Year - III
February 1, 2003
The New Year - II
January 18, 2003
The New Year
January 4, 2003
Lively lives
December 21, 2002
Fashion statements
December 7, 2002
Spreading wings
November 23, 2002
Borrowed words
November 9, 2002
Multiple facts
October 26, 2002
October 12, 2002

A janissary is a person who is a member of a group of highly loyal supporters. Originally, the word was used for a member of the Turkish infantry that formed the Sultan’s guard between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The janissary was abolished as a guard in 1826 but the sense of loyalty continued. The word comes from the French janissaire, based on the Turkish yeniceri, from yeni (new) and ceri (troops).

Any person who is sickly or weak or is constantly and morbidly concerned about his or her health can be called a valetudinarian. This word comes from the Latin valetudinarius, which means ‘to be in ill health’. It is made up of valetudo (health), which comes from valere (be well). Valetudinarian differs from hypochondriac because the former may actually be unwell but the latter is never really unwell. Hypochondriac is derived from hypochondria, an abnormal anxiety about one’s health. It can be traced to the Greek hupokhondria, denoting the soft body area below the ribs, which is derived from hupo (under) and khondros (the cartilage of the sternum). Melancholy was thought to arise from this area, hence the anatomical connection with undue anxiety that one is or is likely to become ill, often involving experiences of real pain when illness is neither present nor likely. It is tough to brush away the concerns of such a person, but for one’s sanity, maybe one can give the label of picayune! A picayune was a Spanish-American coin equal to half the value of a silver coin. The sense of little value was transferred to a person, making a picayune an insignificant person.


Hindi’s naagrik is used as citizen but in Sanskrit, the language of its origin, naagrik is just a person who lives in a nagar. The sense of a citizen as a person with rights and duties developed much later. Kautilya frequently uses naagrik in the sense of commoner. When a Hindi equivalent was needed for citizen, maybe the origin of citizen helped. Citizen developed from the Latin civis. A civis was the resident of a Roman and Greek city-state. The city-state was a parallel to the ancient Indian nagar. The other layers of meaning developed later, with changes in the political set-up all over the world.

This feature was published on March 1, 2003