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Wordy Weekly XXI

So super that we sit in scintillating…all right, sorry, we have come to ‘s’. Plenty of material this week.


i) SEISMIC: ‘to do with earthquakes’ - the word comes from the Greek word σεισμος and its cognate verb σειω (‘earthquake’ and ‘shake’ respectively). A ‘SEISMOMETER’ is an ‘earthquake measurer’ (METER comes from μετροω, which means to ‘measure’).

ii) SYRINGE: ‘instrument for injecting liquid’. This rather charmingly comes from the Greek for ‘a shepherd’s pipe’ (it means ‘tube’ and ‘channel’ as well) συριγξ, συριγγος (syrinx, syringos).

iii) SARCOPHAGUS: ‘a stone coffin’. This has an intriguingly gruesome derivation story. The Greek verb for ‘to eat’ is ἐσθίω and it has an irregular aorist tense (the Greek equivalent of the simple past), which is ‘ἐφαγον’, which gives us the φαγος bit of ‘sarcophagus’. So it’s an eater of something. Right! Now σαρκος is the Greek for (wait for it) ‘flesh’. So a SARCOPHAGUS is a ‘flesh eater’. Lovely!


i) SIBILANT: ‘an alliteration of ‘S’ to create a hissing sound effect’. Yes, there was a reason for the excess of ‘S’ in my opening gambit. The word comes from the Latin verb ‘SIBILARE’, specifically the present participle (SIBILANS, SIBILANTIS). Sssssoo sssssimple!

ii) SERPENT: ‘a snake’. It comes from the Latin SERPO, SEPERE - ‘to creep’, specifically from the present participle ‘SERPENS, SERPENTIS’, so a snake is ‘the one that creeps’, and the verb applies specifically to animals. The verb is etymologically linked (i.e., related in the big world of word families) to the Greek ἑρπω (herpo), which also means to ‘creep’. The Greek for snake, however, is ὂφις (ophis), hence fear of snakes is ‘ophidiophobia’. Interestingly, though, study of snakes (including most other reptiles and amphibians is ‘herpetology’.

iii) SCIENCE: Now, this is an interesting one. We define science traditionally as Physics, Chemistry, Biology at school, perhaps with Maths, and also Medicine, Astronomy, for example. Economics, sociology, anthropology are often dubbed the ‘social sciences’, which are disputed by some. However, the origin of the word is the present participle SCIENTIA, also a noun, from the verb ‘SCIO’ – ‘to know’. Why do I say ‘interesting’? Well, hasn’t the definition of ‘science’ become impressively narrow compared to its original meaning. ‘Science’ has become almost a term for superiority to the disadvantage or even denigration of the Humanities and Languages. I am totally convinced that this ‘modern’ division is not a healthy one.

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