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June 02, 2017  |  Friday words, 2017-06-02  |  1962 hit(s)

What could possibly be more fun than the apparently endless task of refinishing our deck? Oh, yeah … words.

Today's new-to-me word came up in an editor's group on Facebook. Someone had heard (only) a word and was trying to determine exactly what it was. Naturally, one of the editors immediately sussed it out: vade mecum.[1]

In a narrow sense, a vade mecum (also vade-mecum and vademecum) is a book that you carry around with you, perhaps in a pocket, so that you can refer to it conveniently. (The phrase vade mecum means "go with me" in Latin.) In a more metaphorical sense, it means a book that you might refer to often—a handbook or guidebook, as the OED puts it, even if you don't carry it around with you. In a different metaphoric direction, a vade mecum might be anything (not just a book) that you always have with you. Examples that M-W gives of this second sense are "gold, medications, and memorized gems of wisdom."

These days, the ultimate vade mecum would have to be a smartphone, wouldn't we agree?

In the annals of unexpected etymology, today we have sneeze. Sneeze begins with sn, which seems right—we have a bunch of words that are nose-related that start with sn, like snore, snorkel, sniff, snuff, snout, and snot. (This affinity between the sn sound and nose-y stuff is an example of sound symbolism or phonesthemics.)

Update John Lawler reminds me that he's got a diagram/writeup (one of several) that shows affinities for the sn- sound: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/sn.pdf (PDF, obviously)

So imagine my surprise to learn from the Oxford dictionary blog that sneeze wasn't originally sneeze at all: the original word in Old English was fnese, with an f! There were a few words in the olde days that began with fn. (Maybe this is actually expected as analogous with e.g. Greek words that begin with pn, like pneumonia). But fn- words faded away in English, and by about the year 1500, fn must have sounded weird. As indeed it does today; as far as I can tell, we have no words in modern English that begin with fn. Though there still are some in Icelandic.

Anyway, the short story is that the fn- in fnese was misread or misprinted as sn- at a point when fn- had become unfamiliar in English. The fact that sn- made sense probably helped (the OED refers to its "phonetic appropriateness"—see earlier point about sound symbolism).

And I refuse to close with a lame joke about "nothing to sneeze at."

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

[1] The might be the oldest new-to-me word that I've encountered so far—500 years old (in English), and I learned it only this week.