Issue 119, page 1

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Anyone who has ever learned a foreign language will be aware that translation is not simply word substitution.  The Italians even say tradurre e' tradire ("to translate is to betray").  Sometimes, languages just doesn't have equivalent concepts.  French, for instance, lacks a word for "home".  Sure, you can say "welcome to my home" (bienvenu chez moi) but chez moi really means "my place".  In other contexts, "home" is translated as maison, "house".  But, in that case, how would one translate the song title "A House is not a Home"?  ("Une maison n'est pas une maison"?)

An even more surprising omission occurred in Old English, which had no word for "second".  It hadSecond place ribbon fyrst ("first") and Ůridda ("third") but the only way an Anglo-Saxon could say "second" was to use ˇ­er (= "other").  This gap was filled when second entered English from Old French, soon after the Norman invasion.  Although second avoids the ambiguity of ˇ­er, it doesn't specifically refer to the number two - it literally means "the next one", from the Latin root sequi- "to follow".

Another familiar use of second is as a division of time.  How did this come about?  Well, when we say minute we are really using shorthand for first (or prime) minute.  Similarly, second is shorthand for second minute.  The reason for this lies in medieval mathematics.  Medieval scholars employed two systems of fractions: those with a divisor of 60 were called minutiŠ physicŠ; all other fractions were called simply minutiŠ (we still use minutia to mean "a small detail").  Thus, when an hour was divided by 60 the result was called a pars minuta prima, Latin for "a first fractional part"  (i.e. "a minute") and a second division by 60 gave a pars minuta seconda, literally "a second fractional part" (i.e. "a second").  Division by 60 was also used in geometry where degrees were subdivided into minutes and seconds.

The Latin root sequi- has provided English with innumerable words with meanings relating to "following" - sequence, consequence, subsequent, sequel, persecute, prosecute, execute, obsequious, sue and suitor, to name but a few.

The Madness of King George.  Click to follow the link.When Alan Bennett's play "The Madness of George III" was made into a movie, the "III" was dropped for fear that the general public would assume that it was a sequel.  We are all familiar with the sequel which is a follow-up to a previous, successful movie but sequel originally meant a different kind of "follower".  When kings and great lords traveled, they would customarily be accompanied by a large number of hangers-on.  This retinue was called their sequel.

Modern technology allows us to program synthesizers to obey certain sequences of notes, and sequencers (whether hardware or software) are a common tool for musicians.  This terminology harks back to the very earliest days of western music when a sequence meant a prolonged succession of notes sung on the last syllable of the Alleluia in a church service.  Eventually, these sequences were sung on their own and became the ancestor of all European art music.  The term sequencer was first used in the 1400s to mean "a book which held the music for these sequences".

Another musical "follower" is segue (Italian "it follows" pronounced "seg-way") which refers to one piece of music which follows directly after another without pause.  Then there was an old Spanish dance in 3/4 time called the seguidilla (from Spanish seguida "following").  We must admit that this is a pretty obscure word but we include it because we found two preposterous and contradictory quotations:

A monotonous drawling seguidilla that serves the nurses as a  lullaby to put their children to rest.

- Annual Register, 1782


When I taught you to warble the gay seguadille,
And to dance to the light castanet.

- Oh! Remember the Time, Moore , 1852

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Last Updated 08/18/01 06:55 PM