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December 06, 2019  |  Friday words #200  |  458 hit(s)

Fun fact for today: this is my 200th Friday words post, not counting some early, pre-every-Friday word posts. Check out the complete list!

And speaking of words. We got email at work recently advertising some sort of information fair (about commuting, if I remember right), and one of the things on the agenda was a tabling event. I’d never heard of this, I think, so I poked around a bit to see what that might mean.

As often happens, this is an established term that just hadn’t crossed my radar. Perhaps you, too, don’t know it: a tabling event is “working at a table to bring attention to an event/cause/organization,” to quote a user on the Yahoo Answers site.

I didn’t spend a lot of time looking, but the earliest references I found go back to at least 2008. Even then, though, the references appear in texts where the writer seems to assume that everyone knows the term. (Just not me, I guess.) Based on that, it wouldn’t surprise me if the term goes back substantially further.

I think that what interested me was that it seemed like a bit of domain jargon that escaped into the world. (This is all speculation, don’t quote me on this.) People who organize events have their own vocabulary, I assume, and maybe when they plan a vendor fair or similar, they talk about booth setup and banner placement and such. It’s easy to see how in this domain, the activity of staffing a table could become tabling. Perhaps it’s like how HR people use the word onboarding[1], which has now become widespread. Or how when you phone your bank, the customer service rep asks for your social, exposing a domain term (short for “social security number”) to the world at large. Or, I suppose, how computer words like booting and firewall have become everyday words.

Moving along. An article in the New Yorker got me onto the origins of the word metaphor. We got the word from French (hence Latin), but it originates in Greek. We see the prefix meta pretty often, right? Like in metaphysics (philosophy), metadata (computers), metamorphic (geology), metabolism (medicine), or heck, just the standalone meta (“that’s so meta”). It’s not that easy to pin down a meaning for meta in this way; you’ll find various definitions for the prefix like “with,” “after,” “beyond, above,” and “among,” and that it refers to a description or abstraction or commentary of the thing it modifies (metadata and just meta). The OED adds this useful note: “principally to express notions of sharing, action in common, pursuit, quest, and, above all, change, in the last sense frequently corresponding to classical Latin words in trans- prefix.” Ah, trans-. That can also mean “across,” right?

Hold that thought. What about the -phor part of metaphor? This ultimately comes from a Greek word for “to bear, carry.” The Greeks themselves combined this with the prefix meta- to form a verb metapherein, which meant “to transfer.” So when you put together the constituent parts, you get something like “to carry across.” Which is what metaphors do: they carry meaning across from one word or expression to another one.

I’ve got a bonus word origin today: the word pioneer. Pioneers were originally foot soldiers sent ahead to dig and clear. The pion part sort of indicates this; it’s related to peon and pawn (like in chess), and a bit further away, to ped for “foot” as in pedestrian, etc. It expanded to cover anyone who forayed early into a new territory or field.

I learned this from a great Twitter thread by Dr. Sarah Taber, a crop scientist, whose breakdown starts with etymology but then takes a fierce turn into the politics and history of pioneers. Worth a read if you’re willing to get riled.

[1] I’m fine with this word, btw.

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