I’ve always really dug etymology, but I can remember the moment when my love for Latin (and consequently) etymology was sparked. I was a junior in high school, just starting Latin I, after becoming disenchanted with Spanish III the previous year. On one of the first days, my Latin teacher explained that the root of the word “sincere” comes from the Latin words sin cerae, meaning “without wax.” The supposed story is that sculptures were very popular in Greek and Roman times and consequently, low-quality knock-off sculptures were pretty rampant. Cheaper materials were often covered up by wax to hide their imperfections, but high quality sculptures were “without wax,” so to speak (withoutwax.org). This astounded me! Never did I realize that there is such a fancy hidden layer to the English language that ONLY classicists/linguistically inclined people know about! That moment, I realized I had switched into the right language and I was filled with joy. Sadly, I later found out that “sincere” does not derive from “without wax,” but rather the Latin word sincerus, which means “sound, pure, or whole”. Still pretty cool, but I thought my magistra could tell me no wrong. According to Etymonline, “There is no etymological justification for the common story that the word means ‘without wax’…and the stories invented to explain that folk etymology are even less plausible.”
As I stated in last week’s blog entry, folk etymology has transformed our language, but more “fun facts” often mislead people and lead people to spread untrue rumors about where words come from. However, some of these fake etymologies might just come from words that sound very similar to the actual root words, hence the confusion. For example, the word “scissors” comes from the word caedere, which means “ to cut.” Caesarean section baby deliveries are not called so because Julius Caesar was delivered in that way, but from the same word, caedere (makes sense, since they are essentially cutting the woman’s abdomen open). Julius Caesar’s name actually comes from the word caesaries, which means “head of hair” because he was born with a full head of hair. So as you can see, people seek out etymological explanations for the words around them, but sometimes get confused and connect to a word that’s not entirely relevant, but merely just a similar-sounding cognate.