Thursday August 11, 2005

Posticle

So, the other day I was thinking about the Latin diminutive suffix -culus (because I'm just that exciting).  In particular, I was came across the word particle and realized it must come from Latin pars 'part' + -culus.  In the case of particle, the etymology is pretty transparent because the non-diminutive part is also an English word, but I wondered if other English words also came from the same Latin suffix.  After applying a pinch of regex and a generous helping of the OED, I've collated the most interesting results, focusing on the words whose etymologies seemed most obscure to me.

First, here's a list of words that do derive from Latin -culus.  Please forgive the lack of vowel-length markings on the Latin etyma—I'm lazy, but the ancient Romans got along without them, so you'll have to make do.

  • article: from artus 'joint'.  Apparently, article used to mean 'a joint of the body', but that meaning is obsolete.
  • carbuncle: from carbo 'coal'.
  • circle: from circus 'round, ring'.  It's interesting that circle has become the basic term in English.
  • clavicle: from clavis 'key'.  The bone looked like an old-fashioned key, I guess.
  • cuticle: from cutis 'skin'.
  • follicle: from follis 'bag, bellows'.
  • manacle: from manus 'hand'.  Weird—manacles aren't in any sense little hands.
  • miracle: ultimately from mirus 'wonderful'.
  • molecule: from moles 'mass'.  Kind of like particle.
  • oracle: from orare 'to orate'.  This one's odd—oracles ought to be big and impressive, so why the diminutive?
  • pentacle: possibly from penta- 'five'.
  • pinnacle: from pinna 'wing, point', from which we also get pinion.
  • reticle: from rete 'net'.
  • ridicule: from ridere 'to laugh'.
  • tabernacle: from taberna 'hut, booth', from which we also get tavern.
  • tentacle: from temptare 'to feel'.  Ah, so it's a little feeler.
  • vehicle: from vehere 'to carry'.  The -culus suffix was also instrumental in some cases; maybe this was one.

The oddest one I found was muscle, which comes from the diminutive of mus 'mouse'.  According to the OED, this bit of oddness comes down to us from Indo-European: "The word for mouse also has the sense 'muscle' (esp. of the upper arm) in many Indo-European languages, e.g. Middle Dutch, Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Icelandic, ancient and Hellenistic Greek, post-classical Latin, and Armenian [woo-hoo!], app. because of the resemblance of a flexing muscle to the movements made by a mouse."  Interesting...but gross.  I guess the Indo-Europeans didn't know they could call them "guns".

To finish off, here are a few words that I would have guessed contained -culus, but don't:

  • chronicle: from OF chronique (ultimately from Greek).  The OED says, "the non-etymological and non-phonetic -icle may have been due to association with words such as article in which this ending was etymological."
  • icicle: from ice + ickle, an obsolete word meaning, well, 'icicle'.  This word seemed like a slam-dunk to contain the diminutive, but maybe there's a silver lining.  Since the word is available, we could coin a new word icicle meaning 'ice cube'—you know, a little bit of ice.  I'm sure it won't be confusing.
  • monocle: nope, it's Greek mono- 'one' + Latin oculus 'eye'.  But wait a minute...apparently Latin oculus comes from the I-E root oq 'to see'—I wonder if oculus incorporates either the diminutive or instrumental -culus...

[Update: Hatalanche!]

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» LITTLE LATIN. from languagehat.com
The Tensor has a convenient list of English words derived from Latin words with the diminutive -culus suffix; he adds:The oddest one I found was muscle, which comes from the diminutive of mus 'mouse'. According to the OED, this bit... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 12, 2005 9:39:23 AM

» Particle Article from BlogLatin
Tenser, said the Tensor: Posticle provides a list of English words which derive from the Latin diminutive suffix -culus. Enjoy... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 12, 2005 8:17:39 PM

» LITTLE LATIN. from languagehat.com
The Tensor has a convenient list of English words derived from Latin words with the diminutive -culus suffix; he adds:The oddest one I found was muscle, which comes from the diminutive of mus 'mouse'. According to the OED, this bit... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 31, 2006 4:14:18 AM

Comments

Nice list. I did know the musculus one - it gives a whole new meaning to 'mouse arm', doesn't it?

Posted by: MM at Aug 11, 2005 12:10:38 PM

What about cenacle?

Posted by: Steve at Aug 11, 2005 6:45:06 PM

In the case of Oracle, I would guess that it is deemed diminutive because the gods were the big voices and the "oracles" were the little voices used by the gods to talk to man. I haven't got the references at hand but I'm fairly sure that that was mentioned in the Golden Bough. Dang! Now I'm going to have to search my copy out of it's box.

Posted by: Alistair at Aug 11, 2005 9:38:45 PM

Nice list. But, I would exclude circul-, really with -ulo-.

Miracle, oracle, ridicule, tentacle, vehicle (and cenacle) might also be out. -Culo- to verbal roots are historically *-tlo-, a suffix denoting tools or something. So, something like ‘*tool for wondering, praying, laughing at, tempting, conveying (and dining)’.

Posted by: Angelo at Aug 12, 2005 1:51:49 PM

I most strongly disagree about weirdness of "manacle". You did a sloppy job on that one. "Manacle" is derived from Old French manicle which originates from Latin manicula "handle", literally "little hand", It is dim. of manicæ "long sleeves of a tunic, manacles," from manus "hand". You see, the hand is several steps away from its present meaning. It is all very logical and clear. What is weird about it?

Posted by: shkrobius at Aug 12, 2005 2:51:51 PM

Article as 'joint' is obsolete, but a joint is articulate to the present day. (Now I know why.) Speaking of which, you missed knuckle, from canucus 'mitten mushroom', from which we also get nucular. I'm not 100% on that though.

Posted by: Marklar at Aug 12, 2005 4:31:21 PM

"-Culo- to verbal roots are historically *-tlo-, a suffix denoting tools or something."

Ah, perhaps that's what was meant by the "instrumental" version of the suffix. So maybe in all the cases where the root is a verb rather than a noun, the meaning is systematically different: an oracle is someone used (by the gods) to speak, a tentacle is something used to feel, and a vehicle is something used to carry.

"I most strongly disagree about weirdness of "manacle"...What is weird about it?"

What I meant was this: in some of these words like follicle or particle, the diminutive meaning is perfectly straightforward—a follicle is like a small bag, and a particle is like a small part—but manacles (in the sense of cuffs) aren't little hands, they're just worn near (and constrain) the hands.

Posted by: The Tensor at Aug 12, 2005 5:44:38 PM

I've collected 97 (I think) diminutives the great majority of which belong exactly in this category, though a few are ony close relatives. My experience suggests that there are hundreds, if not thousands, in any large dictionary of English words.

Posted by: David Norton at Aug 15, 2005 7:26:12 PM

Not quite on the same track but something I remember from my latin lessons was anulus a little ring.
Which of course is the diminutive of anus which still means a ring in English if only in a slang sense.
ps anus also means an old lady in Latin.

Posted by: Ed at Aug 24, 2005 4:14:29 PM

oculus is indeed the diminutive of *okw-. (Cf. Gk. ops "eye, face")

Posted by: Iustinus at Sep 6, 2005 11:04:10 PM

Re: manacle

Weird? Not really, when you think about comparing it to the word 'shackle'; a manacle being a shackle for the hands.

Posted by: Kept at Nov 27, 2005 4:30:34 PM