Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Farrago of Terms

People readily believe that others in their circle also know what they do. This arises, seems to me, because they’ve forgotten the price they paid for knowledge. Hence that damnable word palimpsest keeps surfacing in antiquarian discussions. It’s a mongrel of a word; I regard all words that contain a ps- beginning as such, a Greek favorite, as in psyche and the derived psychiatrist. The p is #@!& silent, so why print it. Coming to America and learning English, the Ogre was th. The absolutely simplest word in English was a bear to those who hadn’t just grown up with it. That damnable ps- belongs there with the the. Palimpsest comes apart, you see. Palim is “again” and psest is “rubbed,” deriving from psen, “to rub smooth.”  So what is it, finally? Well, a palimpsest is a piece of parchment bearing writing—but one from which the writing has been scraped off so that it can be used again—or it is the same parchment that has already been used again following a vigorous scraping. Why not just say “scraped parchment”? Well, you have to fit in. You have to stay on the reservation. You learned it as palimpsest—it was an achievement. A tiny little pride took root with that effort. The first independent use of that word gave you a little tremulous satisfaction. Therefore, never mind the ordinary ignorant reader out there. Learn it, dammit. I had to…

Parchment is another great word—and has nothing to do with the state of being thirsty. But back when we wrote on the skin of unfortunate beasts, that skin had to be dried. Or so you would think, wouldn’t you? Wrong. The word comes from (1) the name of a city then called Pergamon,  these days called Bergama (in Asia Minor) which evidently introduced leather in competition with papyrus; or (2) the Parthian region of ancient Persian from which the Romans obtained parthica pellis (Parthian leather), and in the repeated use of that phrase they dropped the leather part—much as the drinkable port began as vinho do Porto, a product of Portugal. Sometimes we lose the beginning, sometimes the end.

So what is a farrago? It is a medley, a mixture. I came across it yesterday in a book written in the late 1920. Google’s Ngram facility, which tracks the frequency of word usage way back, shows that for some reason, probably untraceable, the word had a sudden lurch of popularity from 1890 through 1920 roughly; before and after that period, the word lived and lives in the same obscure communities which serve up the palimpsest. The word comes from a mixture of grains, the Latin far, and was coined by the Romans. Barley is a cognate of far. Cognate? It comes from “together” and “born.” Born together, placed in the same cradle, as it were, often meaning that the same word was pronounced differently by different populations. All was well until the dictionary-makers rose to power and started writing down the careless mumbling of the people just out there guiding the plows….

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