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May 03, 2019  |  Friday words #170  |  1637 hit(s)

This week's new-to-me word isn't actually a word, it's a number: 996. A few days ago I was at the coffee bar in our office, idly glancing at a copy of the New York Times, and there was an article about work culture in China. The 996 designation is a bit horrifying: it refers to working 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM, 6 days a week. As it says in the NYT article, "Chinese tech employees have worked hours that make Silicon Valley’s workaholics seem pampered." Per various sources, this is not voluntary overtime: this is actual work-hours policy at some companies in the PRC.

The earliest reference I can find to 996 is from 2016 in an article about the company 58.com. The article talks about "the 996 culture" without quotation marks, suggesting that they think the term might be familiar to readers. In any event, there have been a lot of writeups since then; the NYT article is only one of dozens in the last couple of years.

The term 996 struck me for a couple of reasons. One, of course, was trying to wrap my head around what a company-mandated 72-hour work week would be like. The second reason was that 996 is another example of a numeronym, or number-based word. It joins other numeronyms like 24/7, 9-to-5, 180 ("do a 180"), K-9, Y2K, and 10-4, not to mention i18n ("internationalization") and E15 ("Eyjafjallajökull," the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010). I suppose whether these are all "true" numeronyms is subject to debate, but I'm inclined to be generous with the concept.

Once you've had a chance to consider how you'd cope with 996 culture, let's move on to origins. I was reading recently about something to do with the US president's cabinet, and got to wondering where we got the word secretary from. Here we have these very high-placed officials—Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense—whose title also refers to someone who's "employed to handle correspondence and do routine work in a business office," per Dictionary.com. Run a government department, handle routine work; these don't necessarily seem to be the same thing.

Yet there is a connection, and to my surprise, it's right there in the word itself. A secretary was originally someone who dealt with private matters—that is, with secrets. The name goes back directly to Latin, which had the term a secretis for the position.

The secret part is now clear. The -ary part is a combining form for "man who does [thing]," which we also find in words like actuary ("man who records court acts"), adversary ("man who is adverse"), and apothecary ("man who runs a shop").

From this "man who deals with secrets" sense, the word took a couple of paths (a process known as semantic broadening). The office-type secretary derived from the officer who dealt with the king's correspondence; that sense then generalized into a term for someone who primarily dealt with correspondence in general. The governmental sense of secretary originated in Elizabethan times; a Principal Secretary of State became a role involved not just in assisting the monarch with secrets and write-y things, but in helping to govern.

While we're on the topic of secrets, we have two verbs to secrete. One means "to hide, conceal," which shares a stem with secret and secretary. The other secrete means "to emit or discharge," as in "Some plants secrete a sweet juice." This second sense is a back-formation from secretion and is unrelated to secrets. So there you have it: all is revealed about secretaries and secrets.

Update: See Jim's comment about a common root for secret and secrete ("emit").

Here's some bonus etymology fun for you. In a Twitter thread this week, Lane Greene, the language columnist for the Economist, solicited ideas for words that are homonyms but aren't related. One of Greene's examples was pawn (the chess piece) and pawn ("to exchange for a loan"). Or there's bear ("to carry") and bear (fearsome animal). Anyway, have a look—lots of fun terms.

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Jim Travis   03 May 19 - 9:18 AM

The original Latin word, secretio, is a noun that means a separation or a division. Therefore, "secretary" and "secretion" really come from the same, fundamental root meaning. A secret is a type of separation, a partitioning off if you will, as is a secretion.

mike   03 May 19 - 11:23 AM

Updated to reference your comment.