Quintessential

A trip to the Oxford University Press museum a few weeks ago spurred on some thoughts about favourite words – surely a true lingthusiast has a good favourite word or two? The thing is there are just too many great words to choose from. When we’re pushed to choose, it does seem that the ones that make it to the top of the list are the ones that roll off the tongue the most, such as mellifluous or ubiquitous. But one great word suggestion that is not only fun to say but actually has an interesting word story too is quintessential.

You wouldn’t think there would be anything particularly remarkable about the origin of quintessential; looking at it, it looks quite French and you can see how it can break down into essential and then, presumably, essence. But what about the quint part?

Think quintet or quintuplets. Quintessence literally means the ‘fifth essence’. Going back (via Medieval French) to Latin, as quinta essentia, it was used in classical and medieval philosophy to refer to:

A fifth substance in addition to the four elements, thought to compose the heavenly bodies and to be latent in all things.

(oxforddictionaries.com)

It was introduced to philosophical theory by Aristotle and entered Latin via a loan translation (ie the literal construction of ‘fifth element’ was borrowed) of the Greek pempte ousia. The basic idea was that there are five elements that made up all matter: fire, earth, air, water and quintessence. The first four we’re already familiar with but quintessence, also known as aether, was thought to make up the heavenly bodies and the rest of the universe. It was used to explain several natural phenomena, including gravity and the motion of light.

Over time, our scientific knowledge evolved and the theory of the five elements was dismissed but quintessential stuck on in there by hanging on to that last part of its meaning – ‘latent in all things’ – so that it eventually came to mean ‘the intrinsic and central constituent of something’ or ‘the most perfect or typical example’.

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Bailiwick

An odd thing happened the other day. I was reading an article on a website about land-based engineering of all things (for work, mind, I don’t read that sort of thing for kicks) and in that article was the word bailiwick. The exact sentence was:

We consider our bailiwick to include:

  • Agriculture
  • Horticulture
  • Forestry
  • Amenity
  • Environment

http://www.landbasedengineering.com/

I also checked my emails to read my word of the day (provided by wordsmith.org) and what to my wondering eyes should appear but the very bailiwick. It would seem there’s no other explanation than the gods of language or Titivillus or plain old destiny wanted that word examining for Word Stories.

So here it is: bailiwick two meanings. The first is ‘the district or jurisdiction of the bailie or bailiff’ (thanks oxforddictionaries.com), while the second is ‘one’s sphere of operations or area of interest.’

You can see how bailiwick and bailiff are related. The bail part comes from Latin bajulus, meaning ‘porter’, via Vulgar Latin *bajulivus, meaning ‘official in charge of a castle’, via the Old French baillie, meaning ‘bailiff’.

English borrowed the Old French baillie and added the Old Saxon suffix wic onto the end. Wic meant ‘house, dwelling place’ and then went on to mean ‘villiage, hamlet’ so that the bailiwick literally meaning the village or area of the bailiff. It’s easy to see that the specific bailiwick meaning became more general to mean the area of operations or interest for any person, thus giving the second meaning (and the one used by land-based engineers, evidently).

Wic meaning ‘villiage’ or ‘place’ is still around in lots of words, especially place names, such as Warwick and Hampton Wick. In certain dialects, it went on to take the meaning of ‘farm’. So Gatwick isn’t actually a large British airport, but a goat farm.

Printing and publishing

As Word Stories looked at Caxton and the effect that his printing press had on English last week, I continued in a similar vein this week, by visiting the Oxford University Press Museum. It’s word nerd nirvana, the printing and publishing mother ship. There is a 19th century printing press, an original plate from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and dictionary entry slips handwritten by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Aside from being a worldwidIMG_3295e publishing giant with an extensive history, the OUP is important to us language fans because of the
monumental Oxford English Dictionary. The first ever dictionary was written by Samuel Johnson in 1755 but it was subjective and fairly informal and, as language evolves, soon out of date. When the first volume of the OED was published in 1884, it set a new standard for lexicography: it included everything from Anglo-Saxon times onwards, a thorough, detailed, historical record of English.

Of course the going wasn’t always easy. Five years into the proposed ten-year project, the first instalment was published. It covered all the words from a to ant.

James Murray, the editor at the time, refused to cut any corners and was determined to make it an entire, exhaustive study. He spent some 35 years working on the project but, sadly, died before it was completed. He had reached t.IMG_3257

The complete first edition was published in 1928 in ten volumes instead of the predicted four with around 400,000 words altogether. But of course, by now it had been 44 years since the first volume was published, which had become dated and needed revising. Since language is constantly changing, the dictionary needs to be continually edited.

Aside fIMG_3263rom the OED, some great word stories have also come from the OUP and the publishing world. The terms upper case and lower case for capitals and small letters respectively come from printing. The type is organised by letter in a large set of compartments, a case. The capital letters sit in the upper case while the small letters sit in the lower case.

The phrase to get the wrong end of the stick, meaning ‘to misunderstand’, comes from printing too. Printers held a stick and put the type in it, working from right to left. They had to put the letters in backwards as when they were printed, they would come out in reverse. However, if they got the wrong end of the stick, that is if they started placing the words from the left to the right, the text would come out back to front and no one would be able to understand.

While the typesetter ran out of type, or sorts, he couldn’t finish his job and had to wait until the new batch was IMG_3266delivered. Until that time, he was out of sorts, which now means ‘to feel low or irritable’.

One last noteworthy thing that’s on display in the OUP museum is the notice board of favourite words contributed by visitors. I had a painful realisation that even though I love words, I don’t know what my favourite one is. I feel it’s akin to choosing a favourite child. All the same, I think I need one. I ended up contributing superfluous, mostly because mellifluous had already gone, but I’ve thought of hundreds of great words since (monotonous, sojourn, perturb, albeit, fuddy-duddy, zest). So I put it to you reader, what is your favourite word? Pick a good one and I might even write about it.