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Tuesday, February 05, 2013


 Steve Cole muses: Just thinking to himself about the curious origins of interesting words:

1. ICONOCLAST, someone who destroys cherished illusions or shatters comfortable myths, comes form the Greek icon (picture) and klast (breaker). It refers to a period in the Eastern Orthodox church (726-842 AD) when pictures (icons) were banned from churches because of fear of idol worship.

2. IDIOT, a medical term referring to an adult with a mental age of eight, and used in common speech for a stupid person, comes from the Greek where it simple referred to someone busy with his own affairs and not a holder of a public office or someone involved in the great political debates of that (or any other) period. The Romans borrowed the term but assumed anyone not interested in the great issues of the day (or public office) must not have the brainpower to formulate an opinion or perform the tasks of a public official.

3. IGNORAMUS, another term for a stupid person, is simply the Latin phrase for "we do not know." It was commonly used in legal proceedings when the grand jury or local lord did not find enough evidence to proceed with prosecution. In 1615, a play called Ignoramus (the lead character being a lawyer with that name) satirized the lawyers of the day, saying they had no idea what they were doing. The term then moved into the common speech as we use it today.

4. IMP, which means a mischievous child or perhaps some kind of fantasy creature like a gremlin, was the Old English term for an offshoot of a tree, or a baby tree growing from a seed. The term was often used to refer to the male children of a leader or lord. As such children could not be disciplined (except by their father, who thought they were cute) it came the term for a mischievous demon.

5. IMPEDE, or restrain, comes from the Latin. Roman slaves were usually not tied up, since the punishment for running away was severe and the chances of being caught were extremely high. Those slaves working in areas where escape was more possible were often chained by the ankle, and the Latin term for such was impedio, created by combing the words for something "placed upon the foot." The opposite of this is EXPEDITE which means "to remove the chains from the feet" and as anyone knows, a chained person suddenly unchained feels able to move about more freely. Thus expedite means "to hasten" with the implication that the personal leadership of someone is being exerted in order to remove impediments to progress.

6. INAUGURATE, meaning to begin a great enterprise, a new business, or a term of office, comes from the Roman term "auger" meaning to consult the gods and see if the signs were right. (Auger actually means "talk to the birds" because the birds were usually the way gods signaled their will.)

7. INCUMBENT, meaning the obligations of an office or duty, comes from incubus, an oppressive load. Incubus comes from the Latin words in (upon) and cubus (to lay), meaning "to lie upon" someone. (Succubus means to lie under someone, either term implying sexual congress.) It was thought that demons came in the night to torment people, that an incubus might get a woman pregnant with a demon while a succubus might seduce a man and spawn a demon from his seed.

8. INDENT, which means to put a little space between the written word and the margin of the writing area, means "in teeth" in Latin. In the Middle Ages, two copies of a contract or treaty were written on a single piece of parchment. The space between the two copies was then cut in a random pattern, creating a unique set of "teeth" or indentures. Each party had one copy to refer to in managing his affairs. If there were any dispute, both parties would show up with their copy of the contract, and if the two did not match, someone had created a modified document that was not valid. (How you told which was the cheater is unclear, but presumably the seals and signatures on both copies could then be checked, or witnesses summon, or a sword fight could be held, or something.) The contract between a servant and a master was called an indenture for just this reason, and the term is still used in some cases to this day.

9. INDOLENCE, or laziness, comes from the Latin indolentia, which meant "to not suffer" in the sense that the earlier Greek apathy meant. Like apathy, the term evolved in use into someone who not only does not suffer with the difficulties of life, but does not bother with them either.

10. INFANT, a baby, and INFANTRY, foot soldiers, come from the same root, the Latin term for "unable to speak." The term did not really mean "a baby who has not said his first word" but "a young person not yet able to enter into contracts" and thus unable to "speak for himself."