Thursday, April 21, 2022

Language Of Confusion: Flats, Part V

This is what? The fifth one? And there’s still one more left? I really didn’t expect flat to be so prevalent. Of course, it’s really its root, the Proto Indo European plat-, to spread, and its root pele-, flat or to spread, that are everywhere. Strap in, it’s going to get weird.
First today, something that kind of makes sense. Palm showed up in the fourteenth century from the Old French paume/palme, from the classical Latin palma, where it means the palm of your hand or, you know, a palm tree. Palma comes from pele-, flat, which I can see because the palm of your hand is flat. And the tree of course is named for the palm of a hand, because the way the leaves stick out kind of looks like fingers sticking out from a palm.
Next, plaza, which kind of relates to last week when we looked at place. It didn’t show up in English until the nineteenth century, and it’s Spanish in origin, as the word plaza means square in Spanish, like a town square. The Spanish plaza comes from the Vulgar Latin plattia, from the classical Latin platea, street, and that’s from plat-. Streets were flat and spread out, and now we have plaza. And a bunch of other things.
Now we can finally get into the weird ones! Plasma—like the state of matter, or part of blood—showed up in 1712, though back then it just meant form or shape. It started to mean the liquid part of blood in 1845, and then came into use in physics in 1928, and now those are pretty much the only ways we use the word. Plasma comes from the Late Latin plasma, from the Greek plasma, which actually means creature or figure of all things. It’s from the verb plassein, to mold or build, which was originally “to spread thin”, and it’s descended from pele-. So it went from spreading out, to molding, to a figure, to a shape, to blood/ionized gas. This is definitely a thinker.
And to keep the weird going: plaster. It showed up in the fourteenth century as plastering walls or using a medicinal plaster. It comes from the Old English plaster, which was something medicinal you put on your body (as opposed to in it), coming from the Latin plastrum, plaster, and if things weren’t weird enough for you, plastrum is actually shortened from emplastrum, which also just means plaster. It’s from the Greek emplastron, plaster, a mix of en-, on, and plastos, molded, and that’s from plassein, which we already know. So plaster is plaster because it’s molded on.
Finally, I hope you love this, because we’re looking at plastic. Plastic! Really! It showed up in the mid seventeenth century meaning something capable of molding something else, and back then it was only an adjective—the noun didn’t show up until 1905. It’s from the classical Latin plasticus, plastic, from the Greek plastikos, which means something to mold. And it’s from plastos and plassein, so because moldable things can be flattened out, we have plaster, plasma, and plastic.
Online Etymology Dictionary
Google Translate
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Dictionary of Medieval Latin
Encyclopaedia Britannica
Orbis Latinus


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