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7.5: §56. Interesting Words

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  • Depending on your taste, you may prefer Latin derivatives like formula, which have remained pure and pristine, or others like libel and veal, which have been modified or wholly transformed. An example of the former group is calculus, “small stone,” “pebble” (< calx, calc-is, “[lime-]stone,” a word we met in §16 as the source of E chalk). Calculus is not only a branch of mathematics, pioneered by Sir Isaac Newton; the word is also applied in medicine to a kidney- or a bladder-stone. In a later chapter, we’ll see exactly how the words calculate and calculation came into being. Another pure Latin word in English is uvula, that “little grape-cluster” that hangs down at the back of your mouth, to help you gargle and pronounce your French r’s. Have you looked at your fingernails recently? See if you can find your cuticle (L cuticula, “little skin”) and lunula (L lunula, “little moon”). The word molecule is from molecula, a modern Latin diminutive of moles, “mass.” An ovule, “little egg” (L ovulum < ovum), gives rise to ovular and ovulate.

    The neuter noun vas (“vessel”) appears in English as vase and vas—the vas deferens is the sperm duct from the testicles.[1] A “little vessel” was a vasculum, a word still used by botanists for the small tin box in which plants are collected. More familiar, however, is the adjectival derivative vascular (L vascularis), pertaining to the blood vessels.

    Sometimes English may perfectly reflect a Latin diminutive adjective, but show no trace of the diminished noun from which it stems. Latin jocus (iocus) is the source of English joke. We make no direct use of its diminutive joculus, but we have adopted the derived adjective jocularis as English jocular, “in the manner of a little joke.”[2] Another example is jugular, L jugularis, “pertaining to the collarbone” (jugulum < jugum, “yoke”). Actually, jugulum is the old Latin word for the collarbone; today we call it the clavicle (L clavicula, “little key”).

    There is probably a weird link between the English words oral and oscillate, though the Latin etymology is not certain. The regularly formed diminutive of os, oris (N.) was osculum, a “little mouth” that carried the special meaning of a “kiss.” The English words osculate and osculation refer to kissing, usually with pedantic humour. Latin also had an itty-bitty form oscillum, a double diminutive that was applied to a tiny mask or litle face of Bacchus that was hung from a tree and allowed to swing back and forth in the breeze. This is the likely source of the Latin HOMOGRAPH oscillum, which denoted a more general kind of swing. From this curious origin arose the English words oscillate and oscillation, descriptive of actions that swing back and forth.

    A fascicle or fascicule (both forms exist in English) is a “little bundle” (< L fascis)—for example, an unbound segment of a large book. In ancient Rome, the plural fasces denoted the bundle of rods that symbolized consular power. In 20th century Italy, that symbolism was revived, and gave rise to the political label Fascist .

    If you prefer the transformed and disguised kind of derivatives, English can roll out a fine supply. That four-letter word roll (both verb and noun) conceals the Latin diminutive rotula, “little wheel” (rota). A doublet for module (< L modulus) is mould (US mold), in the sense of “little measure”; the mouldy kind of mould is an entirely different word. Your uncle is descended from Latin avunculus, literally a “little grandfather” (avus); if he’s kind and jolly, like all good uncles, we’ll describe him as avuncular. A carbuncle is an unrelated little piece of coal (carbo)—and one guaranteed cause of a sore foot. From the Latin adjective cavus (“hollow”) comes cavea (“cage,” “coop”); a “little cage” is a *caveola, source of our word jail (which the British still spell as gaol, a form that is slightly closer to the Latin). A seal (the kind that you affix to a document) is derived from sigillum, the diminutive of signum (“sign,” “seal,” etc.).

    There are two English homonyms, buccal and buckle, which are both derived from the same noun, though they are not exact doublets. Bucca was the classical Latin word for the human cheek, though it wandered chinward to become the mouth in French (bouche) and Italian (bocca). One can predict the adjective form buccalis, “pertaining to the cheek”; its English derivative, buccal, is a common word in dentistry, applied to the part of the tooth that is nearest the cheek (as opposed to lingual, on the side of the tongue). The medieval Latin diminutive buccula denoted the “cheek-strap” of the helmet and the boss of a shield; it was not too obscure a progression for the word to become generalized as any type of buckle.

    If your appetite for Latin diminutives is undiminished, you can look up some of the following: bottle, bugle, chapel, charter, model, novel, panel, pommel, pupil (two kinds), scruple, trestle, and vanilla. The etymology of that last word may make you blush. If you are a French scholar, look up soleil, chapeau, oiseau, abeille, oreille, and genou.

    Let us end with a quiet note of warning. Just when you think that you can spot a Latin “little word” at ten paces, you will learn that there is a deceptively similar group of nouns derived from verbs. In a later chapter we’ll meet such English words as curriculum, vestibule, cubicle, vehicle, miracle, oracle, obstacle, and spectacle—with not a diminutive in the bunch. Language study wouldn’t be any fun if it were too easy.

    1. A testicle (L testiculus) is a “little witness” (< testis), proof of one’s virility. Without the diminutive suffix, testis had the same anatomical meaning; the comic poet Plautus puns on the double force of testis, “witness” and “sexual witness.” The English word testes is a 3rd declension Latin plural. ↵
    2. The word juggler was derived ultimately from joculator, “a person who does funny little things.” The Latin word is an agent noun from a denominative verb—a form explained in Chapter 11, §76. ↵
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