Shedding the mold

Nov 4, 2011 by

While we are on the subject of how word meaning may change, I’d like to consider another type of semantic change, the type dependent on the so-called “matrix”, or the particular situation in which the word is often/typically used. Such “matrix” may be either linguistic (other words with which the word in question is typically used) or situational.

Let’s first consider an example of a situational matrix, which can lead to a meaning change, often in surprising ways. Take the word groggy: today it describes someone who’s shaky, dizzy or sluggish, as from a blow or from the lack of sleep, as well as someone experiencing similar symptoms due to being drunk (that’s the earlier meaning, as we shall see immediately below). But the history of this word goes back to a rather unexpected place: the French expression gros grain meaning ‘coarse grain’. It is from this expression that the name of the coarse fabric grogram derives. Still, how did we get from a coarse fabric to being dizzy and sluggish? The crucial figure in this tortuous path is Admiral Edward Vernon of the British Navy, known to sailors as “Old Grog”, for he often wore a coat made of the grogram (note that the the shortening of grogram to Grog follows the same path of clipping that leaves behind a non-morpheme, as in the case of blog from weblog).

It was Admiral Vernon who in 1740 ordered water to be added to the ration of rum served to the sailors under his command; to cut down on the water’s foulness, lemon or lime juice was also added, which led to lowering the incidence of scurvy, even though the connection was not yet understood at the time. The rest of the Royal Navy rapidly followed Vernon’s lead, and eventually the Admiral’s nickname grog became associated with the drink itself, rum diluted with water. A sailor drunk of grog was called groggy, and eventually the meaning of this word was extended from a more specific to a more general one to include a hazy and dizzy state from any cause.

(While meaning extension from a more specific to more general is rarer than the other way around, we find other examples, such as the English word place, which derives from the Latin plateam meaning ‘street’ — compare with the Spanish plaza, Italian piazza and French place, all meaning ‘square’.)

As the example of groggy shows, once the meaning change happens, the matrix (in this instance, situational) is often forgotten; therefore, it is difficult to reconstruct word etymologies. The matrix-dependence is also the reason why we can’t predict meaning change.

The matrix may be not only situational, but linguistic as well. In particular, a part of a longer expression may fall out of use and the remaining word may do the job of the whole expression thus changing its meaning. One perfect example of this sort of linguistic “mold” involves… cheese! The Latin word for ‘cheese’ was caseum; from this word we derive the modern Spanish queso, Italian cacio and English cheese. The Latin caseum is also the source of a learned 19th-century creation casein meaning ‘milk protein’. But what of the other Italian word for ‘cheese’ — formaggio — and its French cognate fromage (note that the French word has undergone a process of metathesis, or reversal of sounds). These words derive from a longer Latin expression caseum formaticum meaning ‘cheese made in a mold’ (from the Latin forma ‘mold’). Due to frequent use, the longer expression caseum formaticum shortened to formaticum, and regular phonological changes derived the modern Italian and French words.

Another example of “shedding the linguistic mold” involves the word date. Ever notice the similarity to data? The two words are actually related, as both derive from the passive participial form of the Latin verb ‘to give’. Simply put, data is what is given. But what is the connection of date and givenness? Apparently, date derives from the Latin data, the feminine singular form of the participle, that has been frequently used in the beginning of a letter (in Latin: epistula, a feminine noun) or a document (in Latin: carta, also a feminine noun), in an epistolary formula that went something like: data ante diem quartum Nonas Iunias meaning ‘given on the fourth day before the Nones of June’ (which would translate into the modern June 2, but we need not concern ourselves here with the complex Roman calendar system). It is from this customary way of writing dates that the meaning of data (English date) derives.

I will conclude this brief examination of “matrix shedding” with my favorite linguo-gastronomical example: the modern Romance words for ‘liver’. The Classical Latin word for ‘liver’ was iecur. Note that this word bears no resemblance to the modern Romance words for ‘liver’: the Italian fegato, Spanish hígado or French foie. But if the latter word makes you think of the famous French delicacy called foie gras (literally, ‘fatty liver’), you are thinking on the right track. In fact, Romans too enjoyed a dish of goose liver made from geese fed on figs; this dish was referred to as iecur ficatum (literally ‘liver figged’). The practice of feeding figs to enlarge a goose’s liver likely derives from Hellenistic Alexandria; in Pliny the Elder’s work Natural History (Book VIII. Chapter 77) we read:

“Apicius made the discovery, that we may employ the same artificial method of increasing the size of the liver of the sow, as of that of the goose; it consists in cramming them with dried figs, and when they are fat enough, they are drenched with wine mixed with honey, and immediately killed.”

The dish of fig-fed goose liver became so common among the Roman elites that the emperor Elagabalus is said to have fed his dogs on foie gras during the four years of his chaotic reign. Because of frequency of use, iecur ficatum became shortened to ficatum, and gradually the meaning of the word has been widened to include first ‘goose liver’ (from any goose, not just fig-fed geese) and eventually to ‘liver of any animal or person’.

And if the adjective acquiring the meaning of the noun with which it was often used seems weird to you, think of such English words as a capital, a cereal, an adhesive and a uniform — all of them former adjectives, which can now be used as nouns as well.

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