Monday, July 21, 2014

Our Dear Old Al-

Allergies-does local honey help?
Allergy season in the Northern Hemisphere has been upon us for some time (though one member of the Take Our Word For It household is allergic to everything and sneezes year-round).  Seeing antihistamines around every corner in the local stores, touting their effects against allergies, made me wonder about the word allergy. Whence does it derive?  I was rather surprised to find that it was coined by a German scientist (C. E. von Pirquet) in 1906!  He formed it from the Greek words allos "other, different" and ergon "work, activity" suggesting "different activity" or "changed activity." The OED says that the original meaning was "altered immunological reactivity to a foreign antigen following previous exposure to it." This meaning quickly evolved to "hypersensitivity
that results in some sort of disorder (such as hayfever)," and then "intolerance of or adverse reaction to a specific substance, especially a food."
Allosaurus -

We see Greek allos in other English words.  There is  allosaurus "other lizard," named because its vertebrae were different from those of other dinosaurs found to date. Allegory comes from Greek allos + agoros "speak" (derived from the "open public space" sense), giving us the etymological meaning "to say something other than what one seems to be saying."  One can see how that came to mean "the use of symbols in a story, picture, etc., to convey a hidden or ulterior meaning, typically a moral or political one," as the OED defines it today.

Greek allos goes back to a Proto-Indo-European root *al- "beyond, other."  We can just make it out in English else, which dates from Old English.  It's not quite as easy to see in other. That derives from a variant form of *al-, *an-, plus a suffix that meant "two," giving us anthara- with the sense "other of two."  It's a bit easier to see other in that.  *Al- is also the root of Latin ultra "beyond." Relatives of ultra include ulterior (etymologically meaning "further beyond") and ultimate ("the furthest").

August Comte -

The "other of two" derivation shows up again in alter, which English borrowed from Latin alter.  John Ayto* says the etymological sense of alter is "more other" with an implied alternation between two. Altercation "argument (with another)" comes from the same source, via Latin altercari. Alternate has the etymological sense "every other" and derives from Latin alter + -nus, an adjectival suffix.  Altruisim is the odd man out. While it comes ultimately from Latin alter, it came to English from French altruisme and was coined from French autrui "somebody else, other."  The "l" from Latin alter was inserted in place of the u in a kind of hypercorrection with the knowledge of alter as the ancestor.  The word was first used by Auguste Comte, the founder of the field of sociology, in 1852.

John Ayto

There is also an "other of more than two" sense that derives from *al-.  We see this in English alien, etymologically "of or belonging to others (persons or places)."  In researching this word, I learned, again from John Ayto (love that guy!), that there was a variant form, alient, but it died out.  He likens it to ancient, pageant, and tyrant, which were previously ancien, pagean, and tyran until that same final t was added in the 15th century.  This was apparently a learned alteration, referring back to Latin participial forms. Alias ("other (name)") is another in this *al- subfamily, as is alibi. The latter arose from the locative form of Latin alius "other" with the meaning "elsewhere" ("other place"), so that an alibi is etymologically one's explanation of being "elsewhere" when a crime occurred.

Going back to the simpler "other" meaning of *al-, we find adultery.  This may be unexpected, but it is thought to derive from the Latin phrase ad alterum "(approaching) another (unlawfully)," where ad means "to, toward".  Latin adulterare also had the broader sense "defile, pollute" which carried into English as adulterate.

Additional "other of two" words are parallel and parallax. Parallel means, in an etymological sense, "beside each other," with parallel being formed from para- "beside" and allelon "each other," which comes from that Greek term we've already encountered, allos.  The OED defines parallax as "difference or change in the apparent position or direction of an object as seen from two different points."  Parallax was formed from Greek para- + allasein "to change, exchange" from the sense "alternate" that arose from allos.

There are four other Proto-Indo-European roots known as *al- with different meanings, so do not assume all words beginning with *al- are related to the *al- discussed at length here.  The second *al- (known as *al-2) has the etymological meaning of "to wander," and *al-3 means "to grow, nourish."  *Al-4 is "to grind, mill" and *al-5 is "all."  None is as prolific a supplier of English words as our dear old *al- (known as *al-1).

This week's link of interest is James Somers' piece on the beautiful language of old dictionaries: You're Probably Using the Wrong Dictionary.

*See Take Our Word For It's bibliography.
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