Thursday, May 8, 2014

Language of Confusion: What’s Your Sign?

Whee, etymology day! It was a lot of fun doing a word a day, but now I can go into details. Also, a lot of times I come up with catchy titles and just do etymology from what’s in them. Case and point, see above. There are lots of words that have been created because of sign. Some of them even pronounce the N.

The word sign first showed up in the early thirteenth century, where it meant a motion of the hand (like you’d hold up your hand to stop someone or, you know, flip them off), and other sign meanings, like a signal or a miracle came from that. It came from the Old French signe, sign or mark, before that the classical Latin signum, which means sign or mark, and can be further traced back to the Proto Indo European word sekw-no- (FYI, the sekw- part of that word also gives us the word sequel).

Signature showed up in the mid-sixteenth century, initially meaning a document in Scottish law. It was derived from the Middle French signature and Medieval Latin signatura, which is pretty much the same thing. Anyway, you can see how sign, which once meant mark in Old French, could find its way to meaning a mark of someone’s name.

Signal showed up in the late fourteenth century from the Old French signal/seignal, seal or sign. It can be traced through Medieval Latin as signale and in Late Latin signalis, both meaning signal and both coming from the classical Latin signum that gave us sign.

Design showed up as a verb in the mid-sixteenth century. Back then, it meant mark, point out, or appoint, which is what we use designate for these days. The old definition follows that of the classical Latin word we took it from, designare, where the de- means out, and the signare is from signum, making the literal definition “mark out”. The noun version of design has a slightly different origin story, coming from the Middle French desseign and the Italian disegno, and before that the Latin designare that gave the other design. Both French and Italian have a more artistic definition attached to design; it can mean purpose or project in the former and drawing or picture in the latter. I’m guessing that’s why we use design the way we do these days.

Resign showed up in the late fourteenth century with basically the same meaning we have today, coming from the Old French resignere and classical Latin resignare. The prefix re- means opposite in this case, and “opposite of mark” doesn’t really make sense literally. But figuratively, it’s like the opposite of marking something off a to-do list—by removing it completely.

Ensign showed up in the late fourteenth century and we have Scottish to thank for it, although it did come from the Old French enseigne before that. Enseigne actually means a mark, signal, or flag, and it comes from the classical Latin insignia, which you may realize is where our word insignia comes from. The in- means, well, in, and the signum…okay, I’m guessing you know that by now. Anyway, this makes it “mark in”. Um, I guess this is supposed to be figurative.

This word that isn’t used so much these days first showed up in the early fifteenth century meaning to ratify by sign or seal. It comes from the Middle French consigner and classical Latin consignare. The prefix con- is from the prefix com- (really, that’s how it works) which means together. Literally the word means “mark together”, but it’s another one that’s more figurative.

Assign is fairly old, coming from the early fourteenth century and descended from the Old French assiginer and classical Latin (you know, like the rest of the words) assignare, both basically meaning what we know it ass. The prefix comes from ad-, meaning to. With signare, that makes it “sign to”, kind of like choosing someone for something. Or assigning it.

Whew. That was a long one. Bet you weren’t ready for something like that after all those short posts. I know I wasn’t.



  1. These word derivations are very interesting, and it's so easy to use words with 'sign' within them without considering the basis of the word.

    We all have our own sign, whether it's in the form of a signature, resignation, or whatever. My sign is individual - like a seal- and I never thought of it this way before.
    Good post.

  2. Design really changed. And the only time I see consign now is as consignment.

  3. Ensign, of course, is also a military rank.

    Resign, by the way, is something I'd like a certain idiot crack smoking mayor to do.

  4. They all kind of makes sense together. Wasn't really expecting that.

  5. All of these make sense, but I didn't realize what sign came from and how it came to be in all of these words.

  6. My throat is strangely tight from all those gn's, but I enjoyed this post. Heck. If I wanted to, I could segue right into book signings. LOL

  7. Nice job showing us variations of "sign" words.

  8. Hi JE - such an interesting selection, which just suits me down to the ground .. I love posts like this ...

    Great range of words though too ... and interesting how they all tie in somehow and someway ...

    Good post and information though .. cheers Hilary


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