Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Language of Confusion: To the Mandatorium!

Many words contain variants of manual, which comes from the classical Latin manualis, belonging to the hand, and can even be traced back to Proto Indo European as men-, which of course means hand. It would take forever to find and list all the manual words, so today I’m focusing on a particular subset: those related to the word mandate.

Mandate first showed up in the sixteenth century, a creation from the classical Latin mandatum, which means order. The word is a past participle of mandare, a combination of manus(hand) and dare (to give).  And yes, dare is the classical Latin word for date. It was the Romans who first started using it as a specific time.

Now, although mandate seems like the predecessor of other –mend words, it’s actually not. At least, it isn’t in English. This might seem weird, but this happens a lot. So many of our words already existed in other languages and were taken as they are needed. For example, demand first appeared in the late thirteenth century, more than two centuries before mandate. Similarly, command appeared in the thirteenth century and remand showed up in the mid fifteenth century. Reprimand and mandatory, however, did come after mandate. There’s also countermand, which I’ve never heard of before. But it doesn’t get a red squiggly line under it in Word, so apparently, it’s well used enough to be in that dictionary. Awesome points to anyone who can name a book where the word has showed up.

One thing these words all have in common is that they came from French first (well, not mandatory, that was straight from Late Latin). There is the Old French demander (to demand), comander (to entrust or instruct) and the Middle French remander (to send an order) and reprimende (a noun meaning, unsurprisingly, a reprimand). Each of those words showed up at a different time, too, as they were based off Latin.

For the most part, languages borrow from each other because, well, Occam’s razor applies to words as well. It’s easier to take the Latin demandare and switch it to demander and then demand rather than come up with a whole new word for require a specific task. Even “new” words like email and Facebook are combinations of existing words.

That’s language evolution for you.

Thanks to: 
Dictionnaire du Moyen Fran├žais (1330-1500) (I can't really read French, but even I know that says Dictionary of Middle French). 
John Garger's Article on Brighthub: The Golden and Silver Ages of the Latin Language: The Classical Latin Period.
And Christine's Latin Webpage.


  1. Good rundown on the origins of this word. I feel so scholarly now.

  2. I am familiar with countermand, but I can't think of a book where it's shown up off the top of my head. I'll have to look around for one. (I'd guess something that has a military theme.)

    This post made me think of this quote that's been going around for a while: "English: A language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary." On Goodreads it's attributed to James Nicol.

  3. Countermand would definitely turn up in a military genre... and probably specifically something to do with the navy side of things.


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