Sunday, January 13, 2008

What's the Point?

Suggested by dleventhal

We all (except you, who I know to be too balanced and sane for any such thing) have our private intellectual obsessions, those topics upon which, unless we are very careful, we can expound for an hour to some poor, unsuspecting soul at a cocktail party. It might be eschatology ("end time study") or soteriology (the study of the salvation of the soul). It might be old car engines or Winston Churchill or the physics of the perfect golf swing. It doesn't really matter what your poison is; the salient point is that you could go on for hours, but to that polite person you've cornered, and whose eyes have glazed over like a frightened rabbit's, it could not matter less.

My favorite quarry for intellectual sport is etymology, the study of word origins. Before you roll your eyes or let them glaze over like aforesaid rabbit, and before you hit the 'back' button on your Web browser in over-hasty retreat, bear me with me for just a paragraph or two while I convince you that this is somewhat interesting, perhaps even deserving of being your next intellectual obsession, if you are the sort of person who has such things. Genealogy, after all, is one of the most popular amateur pursuits, and the genealogy of words is no less dense and surprising a discipline than that of people. To quote Canadian novelist L.M. Montgomery, words aren't made; they grow! They are far more like people than anything else I can think of, and those who slap them together like bricks, with some indifferent punctuation for mortar, assuming one word to be more or less like another, do them a great disservice. Words deserve to have their ancestry known.

Words and phrases have stories behind them, and knowing those stories makes language inestimably more subtle and, well, fun! To take a really simple example, look at the title of this blog: "What's the point?" This is such a hackneyed metaphor, I'll be you didn't even see it, no more than you are habitually aware of the sound of individual consonants when you read. But what is a point? A point belongs to a tooth, a knife, or a rapier. Before it had any abstract meaning, a point was a thing that cut, something of wincing physical sharpness. Once upon a time, the mental picture of an argument, or an experience, having a point, a focused, incisive edge, was powerful and novel.

If that didn't tickle your fancy, try the following etymologies on for size:

ASSASSIN. During the time of the Crusades the members of a certain secret Muslim sect engaged people to terrorise their Christian enemies by performing murders as a religious duty. These acts were carried out under the influence of hashish, and so the killers became known as hashshashin, meaning eaters or smokers of hashish. Hashshashin evolved into the word assassin.

FEISTY.From American dialect feist "small dog", from fysting curre ("stinking cur"), from Middle English fysten ("break wind"), Old English fisting "stink".

NO-MAN'S-LAND. The space between trenches in World War I, quite literally land that no one was able to lay claim to.

LOBBYIST. A person who sat it the lobby of Washington's Intercontinental Hotel, where Lincoln often stayed during his presence, to present his side of an issue.

BANKRUPTCY. Before ATM Machines, bankers sat in the public square on benches, called banks (from the Latin banco). If they were not able to pay back the money placed on deposit with them, their benches/banks were broken (rupt) in half, both as a public shaming and to signify that they were out of business.

I could go on for pages, but you'd probably fall asleep, and then what would be the point?


Anonymous said...

Not what I was expecting...but very clever!

Thanks for humoring my suggestion!

diana walker said...

Wow, Aly. You've actually hooked me...and yes, I did sit, reading with glazed eyes, just like you predicted. My intellectual obsession is authentic worship. (Worshipology? You can figure that one out.) Try that one at a cocktail party!

Anonymous said...

You did it again...surprised and seduced this lover of words with your originality by "making a point" with "what's the point".