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Issue 5

August 17, 1998
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
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This week's word is aesthetic. This word comes from Greek aisthetikos "perceptual", which is the adjective derived from the verb aisthesthai "perceive". The English form of the noun is esthesia (spelled aesthesia in British English). Combined with prefixes, esthesia forms several medical terms pertaining to sensation:

anesthesia: an- ("without") + esthesia

dysesthesia: dys- (abnormal) + esthesia 

esthematology: esthesia + logos ("words, study") -- the science of the sense organs and their functions.

esthesiology: esthesia + logos ("words, study") -- the science of sensory phenomena.

kinesthesia: kinesis ("movement") + esthesia -- the ability to perceive the extent, duration or weight of movement.

paresthesia: para- ("beyond") + esthesia -- tingling; heigtened sensitivity.

synesthesia: syn- ("together") + esthesia -- experiencing sensation from one sense organ as if it came from a different sense organ, i.e., seeing sounds as a color or images.

The adjective form of the Greek, aisthetikos, arrived in Europe as modern Latin aestheticus, and it was first used in German philosopher Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) works (in the form asthetisch), where it meant "perceptual". However, in 1750, A.T. Baumgarten, examining the theory of beauty, used the word to title his work: Aesthetica. It was his choice of the word that exposed it to wider usage and gave it its current meaning.

Interestingly, Latin audire "hear" is related to the verb aisthesthai, and therefore all of the English descendants of audire (audible, auditorium, etc.) are distant cousins of aesthetic.


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Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Kristen B. Conner Gates:

The only dictionary I own listed the abbreviation of "Tiano" as the language from which the word potato is derived. The only problem is, the authors neglected to list what the abbreviation means in the etymology.

Well, first, Tiano is not an abbreviation. It is, in fact, a language, and it was spoken by the people who originally inhabited the island of Hispaniola (where Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located today). The English word potato originally applied to the "sweet potato" (which has orange flesh). Interestingly, the sweet potato was considered an aphrodisiac in the 16th and 17th centuries, and when Shakespeare refers to potatoes in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he means the sweet potato. English potato came via Spanish patata from Taino batata "sweet potato". Potato did not come to apply to the tuber we call such today (the sort that typically has white flesh) until the turn of the 16th century. That white-fleshed spud was first known in Europe as the Virginia potato (it was mislabeled like the guinea pig, the jerusalem artichoke, and the turkey [bird], none of which came from the place suggested by its name).


From David O'Connor:

I was in a discussion and the word myriad came up - just one of those words that strikes me as weird.  I was just wondering where it came from.

Now used to mean "a very large but indefinite number", this word once meant exactly 10,000. At least, that's what the Greek word myriados meant. Curiously, myriados is itself derived from myrios, which is Greek for "countless" or "innumerable". (Presumably, the ancient Greeks lost count after 9,999.)  It retained its meaning of 10,000 as it passed through Latin myrias and Middle French myriade, entering English in 1555.


From Jacqui:

I am interested in the etymology of these words: unction and anointing.

Unction entered written English in the 14th century via Latin unctio, which derives from unguere "anoint". (Unguent, from the latter, dates from the 15th century.)

Anoint is related to unction, having entered English in the early 14th century as anointen, from Old French enoint, past participle of enoindre "smear on". Old French got the word from Latin inunguere, which is in- "on" + unguere "to smear".


From Chenyao in China:

Everyone knows the word handsome, but I think most people do not know its origin. Please tell us.

You are right in that most people do not know the origin of this word. The current form of the word gives away its origins, however: in the 15th century, if one was handsome, he was "easy to handle." Yes, I'll give you a hand if you figured that handsome is a direct descendant of hand. However, I cannot hand you the etymology of hand itself. This word has no relatives in any languages other than Germanic ones. German, Dutch and Swedish all possess the word hand. It is thought that hand might be related to Gothic frahinthan "seize", Swedish hinna "reach" and English hunt, its original meaning perhaps having been "body part used for seizing." A similar formation may be reflected in metacarpal (bone of the hand) and carpe (as in carpe diem) "seize".


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