Arrant Pedantry

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Science and Shit

A recent discussion on Twitter about whether the line “I’m gonna have to science the shit out out of this” was in Andy Weir’s book The Martian or was only found in the movie reminded me of one of my favorite facts: science and shit are related. So let’s science the shit out of this etymology.

It all starts (as so many of these things do) with Proto-Indo-European. The root *skey meant ‘to cut, split, separate’. The extended form *skeyd became scit in Old English. The sc sequence was originally pronounced /sk/ in Old English and other Germanic languages, but it eventually became pronounced /ʃ/ (the “sh” sound) in Old English. The sh spelling came later under the influence of French scribes. But despite those minor spelling changes, the word has remained virtually unchanged in over a thousand years. You could travel back to Anglo-Saxon times, and they would understand you if you said shit.

So how did a root meaning ‘to cut, split, separate’ come to mean ‘feces’? From the notion of separating it from your body. The same metaphor is found in the Latin excrementum, which employs the unrelated root meaning ‘to sift, separate’.

This means that shit probably started out as a euphemism. Speakers of Proto-Indo-European or Proto-Germanic may have talked about needing to go separate something rather than use a more unsavory term. In English, shit was fairly neutral for a long while and apparently didn’t become taboo until around 1600, at which point it mostly disappeared from print. It isn’t found in Shakespeare’s plays or in the King James Bible.

Euphemisms often become sullied by the connotations of the thing they’re euphemizing, which leads to the need for new euphemisms, a process sometimes called the euphemism treadmill. So even if shit started life as a polite way to talk about defecation, it eventually became a rather crude one.

(By the way, the “ship high in transit” etymology is pure . . . well, you know. Kory Stamper’s excellent book Word by Word covers this and other bogus acronymic etymologies in more detail.)

In Latin, the PIE root *skey gave rise to the verb scire ‘to know, to understand’. It probably developed from ‘separate’ to ‘distinguish’ or ‘discern’ (that is, ‘tell things apart’) and then to the more general sense of ‘know’.

A noun form of the present participle of scire, scientia, originally meant the state of knowing—that is, ‘knowledge’. Scientia became science in French, which was then borrowed into English. In English it came to mean not just knowledge but the body of knowledge or the process of gaining new knowledge through the scientific method.

The Latin scire gives us a whole bunch of other words too, including conscience (from conscire ‘to know well, to be aware, to have on one’s conscience’), conscious (also from conscire), prescient (‘knowing beforehand’), and nescient (‘not knowing, ignorant’). A related form, nescius is also, surprisingly, the origin of nice, which is a great example of just how much meanings can change over time. Though it originally meant ‘ignorant’, it shifted through ‘foolish’ to ‘lascivious, wanton’ to ‘showy, ostentatious’ to ‘refined’ and then ‘well mannered’ or ‘kind’. The Oxford English Dictionary records many more obsolete senses. A different descendent of *skey yielded the Latin scandula, which later became scindula and was then borrowed into English, where it became shincle and then shingle (from the notion of splitting off a thin piece of wood).

In Ancient Greek, the root *skey yielded schism (meaning a division between people, often in a religious organization) and shizo-, as in schizophrenia (literally ‘a splitting of the mind’).

Back in English, *skey also yielded shed (meaning ‘to cast off’, as in shedding skin, but not the shed meaning a storage building). It probably also gave us sheath (from the notion of a split piece of wood in which a sword is inserted). The Online Etymology Dictionary says it also gives us shin (from the sense of ‘thin piece’, though that’s a little opaque to me). And it’s the source of the word share, from the notion of dividing what you have with someone else. It also gives us shiver (in the sense of a small chip or fragment of wood), which still appears as a dialectal word for ‘splinter’.

In Old Norse, *skey yielded skið also meaning ‘piece of wood’, which eventually gave us the word ski.

And *skey appears to be a variant of another root, *sek, meaning ‘to cut’, which gives us a whole host of other words like section and segment and saw, but I should probably cut this post off somewhere and save some things for another day.

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An Etymological Workout

If you’re like me and are still trying to get back into the swing of things after a nice holiday break, you might be having a little trouble focusing on work. You might even be suffering from a mild case of ergophobia, or the fear of work. So here’s some etymology to distract you.

Work comes from the Proto-Germanic *werkam, which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European *wérǵom, ultimately from the root *werǵ ‘to make’. In Ancient Greek, *wérǵom gave rise to ergon, which gives us energy, from the prefix en- ‘at’ + erg ‘work’ (‘at work, active’), as well as terms like ergonomics and ergative (and, yes, ergophobia). It also apparently gives us the name George, a name meaning ‘farmer’ or ‘husbandman’, which comes from ge ‘earth’ + ergon ‘work’, literally ‘earth worker’.

Forms of ergon also gave us surgery (from earlier chirurgerie, from the Greek kheir ‘hand’ + ergon ‘work’), metallurgy (‘metal work’), liturgy (‘public work’ or ‘public worship’), thaumaturge (‘wonder worker’), dramaturge (‘drama worker’), demiurge (‘public worker’, from a different root meaning ‘public’ than the one in liturgy), “argon” (from the prefix a- ‘not’ + ergon ‘work’, because argon is inert), lethargy (from leth ‘to forget’ + argos ‘not working, idle’), allergy (‘other working’), and synergy (‘working together’).

A variant of the PIE *werǵ, *worg, also produced the Ancient Greek organon, meaning ‘instrument’ or ‘tool’, which eventually made its way into English as organ (meaning the musical instrument, the body parts, and other senses). From this we also get the verb organize, which originally meant ‘to put in working order’, as well as other derived forms like organic and organism.

It also gave us orgy, which originally meant ‘secret rites’, probably from the sense of some kind of work performed for one’s gods. The Online Etymology Dictionary says: “OED says of the ancient rites that they were ‘celebrated with extravagant dancing, singing, drinking, etc.,’ which gives ‘etc.’ quite a workout.” (This root did not, however, give us the word orgasm.)

The Proto-Indo-European *wérǵom also yielded the Germanic bulwark (literally ‘bole work’ or ‘tree work’), which originally meant a defensive wall made of logs. This word was borrowed into English either from Middle Dutch or from Middle High German. It was also borrowed into French and became boulevard, with an anomalous change from /k/ to /d/ at the end. It eventually came to mean a tree-lined street and was then borrowed back into English.

And, of course, it also yields the English wright, meaning ‘worker’ or ‘maker’, and the archaic wrought, which is an old past-tense form of work and not a past-tense form of wreak as some mistakenly believe.

So that one little root from Proto-Indo-European has been pretty productive. I should probably try to be too.

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