Thursday, March 16, 2017

Language of Confusion: Where Music And Biology Collide

Organ…it can be something you play, or a part of your body that keeps you alive. Why is that?

Organ is actually a fusion—seriously. The Old English organe and Old French orgene came together to form a stronger, more powerful word than either could be separately. Both words had the same meaning, a musical instrument, and both come from the classical Latin organum, instrument. Latin stole it from Greek, where it’s organon, which means instrument in a very general sense, not just musical. And back then it could be a tool or a body organ, which means that over the years it changed from having several definitions to only meaning musical instruments and then went back to having several definitions, including one very specific musical instrument. I think it’s funny that organon comes from the Proto Indo European werg-ano-, which comes from werg-, to work, because that makes way more sense as an origin for these words.

And it’s not the only word originally music related. Take organic. It showed up in the early sixteenth century meaning serving as a musical instrument, coming from the classical Latin organicus and Greek organikos, and while both mean organic, both also originally had to do with instruments, not what we think of organic as. In fact, it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that it applied to living beings (although they used “organical” for that before, and tell me that word isn’t funny).

Finally today we’re looking at organize. It showed up in the early fifteenth century meaning construct or establish, which makes it weirder that organized originally specifically meant “furnished with organs”. It came from the Middle French organizer and Medieval Latin organizare, which in turn is from our old friend organum. Okay, I can almost get how it went from construct to put into order, but I have no idea how we’re supposed to get from instrument to construct/establish. Makes. No. Sense.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. I was just waiting for orgasm to show up in there somewhere and then I'd really be confused...

  2. Organical sounds completely out of place!

  3. Yeah, I like organical. Kind of.

  4. Maybe because one of the meanings was tool and they're used for construction...

    What about organ for newspaper, as in "esteemed organ"? You don't hear that phrase enough these days, or at all.


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