Saturday, December 18, 2010

Language of Confusion: Contested

See, it’s also because I have a contest going on. I know I said it ends tomorrow, but I think I'll extend it until Christmas Eve. Not that I don’t have tons of entries but…okay, that sentence isn’t even fooling me.

But in actuality, the word contest is a dual word. It means a drawing with special prizes, like books and whatever else I can find to throw in there, or to challenge something, like you’d challenge a ticket. Refuse (no way) and refuse (garbage), they are pronounced differently. You’d enter my con-test. You’d cuhn-test a parking ticket. They are also different parts of speech; the first is a noun, the second a verb.

Contest the verb arose in the early seventeenth century from (don’t be shocked now) the Middle French contester, dispute or oppose. Like most Middle French, the roots go back to Latin, in this case contestari, which is translated as contestor or call to testify. This seems to be as far back as the actual word goes, but if you divide it up, you can learn some more.

The root words are con- and -testari. Testari (to bear witness) is the root word for testify and testament and comes from testis (a witness, not anything else you’re thinking). It makes sense to say you’d contest a ticket since you’d be testifying against it!

Con- is a common prefix that means together or with. In other languages, con is the actual word for with! Added with the testari, you’re saying together to bear witness. Yes, it kind of doesn’t make sense, but that’s what happens in translations. Con itself is an old, old word. It originated as com in Latin, which is derived from an older Latin word cum (not that! Stop being dirty; it’s like graduating with honors or cum laude, pervert). That word can be seen in Old English (fifth to twelfth centuries) as ge- and further back in Proto-Indo-European (~3500 years BCE). So it’s an old one.

As for the noun, it showed up around 1640, forty years after the verb. I can’t find anything as to why they started using it to mean a competition, but contesting showed up in about 1610, and from there it makes sense for it to go from a court procedure to a challenge between rivals.  

Words sure have long and interesting lives.

My sources:

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