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February 07, 2020  |  Friday words #207  |  2481 hit(s)

I was recently reading one of my Christmas books, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, when I ran across this passage about how commercial bread-baking in the 1920s and 1930s was promoted as a scientific and modern improvement over home-baked bread:

Bakers' smug paternalism might have infuriated the ranks of middle-class women championing food reforms and social improvement—except that they were just as ensorcelled as the bakers.

I had to stop reading and look up ensorcelled. A great word, ensorcell: "to betwitch." From the French ensorceler, which has the same root as sorcerer.

Then shortly thereafter the editor Sarah Bronson used the word in a tweet. How can I run across the same obscure word twice in such a short time? Is it just the frequency illusion?

And obscure it is. Although the word ensorcell has been in English since at least the 1500s, it shows up in the Corpus of Contemporary American English a mere 27 times—and 13 of those mentions are in a single book. (It shows up only as ensorcelled, past tense, with zero hits for ensorcell or ensorcells, present-tense forms.)

Update: There is a spelling variant with one L, ensorcel, past tense ensorceled, which adds another 13 COCA hits. The dictionaries I was looking at seem to prefer the double L variant, and it doesn't seem to be a British/American difference. Dunno.

The other mentions in the COCA search results suggest to me why I don't run across this work more often, namely, it shows up primarily in fantasy and sci-fi writing. Clearly, if I read more widely in those genres, I would expand my vocabulary with useful terms like ensorcelled.

On the word-origins front, I was thinking about a word that's been much in the news lately: virus. Since starting my casual work with Latin, I've been looking at words through that lens. This one looked promising: vir means "man"! The -us ending is second declension! Does virus have something to do with "human," maybe?

Yeah, no. Well, yeah, it's from Latin, but no, it doesn't have anything to do with vir, "man." Our word virus comes more or less directly from the Latin word vīrus, which meant "poisonous secretion" or "venom."[1]

As is true for some other words (for example, germ), our medical sense of the word is the later and metaphoric sense. The Romans applied the word vīrus to poisons and other substances that had generally unpleasant sensory qualities—"acrid juice," as the OED says. That meaning made it into English, and there are cites from about 1600 to the 20th century in which virus referred to snake or insect venom. ("I note that there is a quite a demand for snake virus," 1899) A weird flex is that vīrus was also used sometimes to refer to semen.

The term has been used in medicine since the 15th century, albeit in the original and general sense of "poison." For example, Edward Jenner referred to "cow-pox virus" in 1798 when he was writing about his work with inoculations.

The modern medical sense developed in the late 1800s to refer to an infectious agent that was so small that it could pass through a filter that blocked bacteria—people understood that there was a thing there that caused disease, but the microscope technology of the time couldn't resolve just what it was. The first visual evidence of viruses had to wait till 1931 and the use of electron microscope.

These days we have computer viruses, which take the "infectious agent" metaphor into the digital realm. And something can go viral if it spreads in the manner of a swiftly-moving disease. And to complete the circle, I suppose, we could say that much of what we encounter this way is acrid-tasting and possibly even poisonous. haha.

[1] Something I'm not yet used to in my modest Latin studies is paying attention to whether vowels are long or short. The Romans didn't mark long vowels (I guess?), but the difference between a short and long vowel can distinguish a pair of words (I guess?).

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