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Digging for word roots

Digging for word roots
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First Published: Sun, Oct 26 2008. 10 17 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Oct 26 2008. 10 17 PM IST
The other day, someone told me about the origin of the word “daisy”. He said it stands for “day’s eye”, from old English daeges eage. Its Latin equivalent is solis oculus, or sun’s eye, so named because the petals open at dawn and close at dusk.
Not all flowers have such pleasant names. If daisy gave me a pleasant surprise, orchid gave me a shock. The root of the word is Latin orchis and refers to a male body part not generally mentioned in mixed company.
The study of word origins can be both entertaining and embarrassing. Coming across the word “senator” several times in the news of the day, I decided to trace its origin. It did not make pleasant reading. The root of the word can detract from the prestige we attach to the office. The word contains the Latin root sen, and means “old man”. “Senior” has the same root. A senate in Latin is a council of old men. One of the US presidential candidates is a senator in both the Latinate meaning and the modern meaning of the word.
Besides senator, there are several election-related words that have interesting origins. “Candid” is from Latin candidum, meaning white, pure, shining. In ancient Rome, people who contested elections to high office were called candidates, from the white togas they wore in public.
My study of word origins has led me to the conclusion that in our use of election-related terms, we are still in the Stone Age. The word “ballot” itself referred to a little ball made of stone or metal. Voters cast these balls in one of several boxes to favour a candidate of their choice. The dictionary traces it to 1549, when it was adopted from the Italian ballotta, “little ball”.
“Poll” is a very interesting word: Its basic meaning (1290) was “human head”, especially the part on which hair grows. Soon, the meaning expanded to counting the heads of persons or animals, as in the expression, “20 head of cattle”. From the idea of head-counting arose the idea of counting the number of people recording their choice or casting their vote. Polling can mean eliciting or receiving a vote, recording a vote or getting someone to vote.
The word has today developed a new meaning, which is perhaps its best-known meaning now. An opinion poll is a survey of the views of a representative sample to gauge the preferences of the public and predict the likely outcome of an election. People who conduct such studies are called pollsters. Around 1952, a Latinate name was suggested by David Butler. “The word was coined purely in jest”, said Butler, who began to call himself a “psephologist”. Robert McKenzie popularized the word among the British public. He also propagated the idea of “swing votes”.
Psephology has the root psephos, pebbles or stones. In ancient Athens, votes were recorded by putting a pebble in a ballot box. The same root is found in the word “psephomancy”, the art of divining or predicting by drawing a number of stones from a heap and studying symbols marked on them. Indian astrology has something similar: A handful of cowrie shells is drawn from a heap and then divided into smaller piles. The astrologer then interprets the result.
“Ostracize” is another stone-based word from Athenian democracy. Ostracon meant a tile or a fragment of pottery. Athenian democracy had a procedure by which a citizen who became too powerful or dangerous in some other way could be expelled from the city for 10 years. The “ballot” for this consisted of cheap pieces of pottery and voters would scratch the name of the citizen whom they wanted to be ostracized. The name at the top of the list would be exiled from Athens for 10 years.
Psephologists use statistics to calculate the results. “Calculus” itself means stone, and renal calculus, for example, is the medical term for stone in the kidney. Since pebbles were used in ancient times to count, the word calculate came to refer to various arithmetic operations.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Oct 26 2008. 10 17 PM IST