Something for a slow day

My Google alerts have really not been throwing up a great deal of exciting stuff recently. Has the world entered a Latin lull? A month or two back there seemed to be interesting Classical stuff all over the place. So here is a piece from the Globe and Mail on caedere and its compounds and derivatives.

Word play occurs in unexpected places. Diane Lane, while promoting her recent movie Nights in Rodanthe, branched into a brief discussion of “cide.” “To decide is a great word,” she said, “because it’s like fratricide, matricide, suicide. It means to kill one idea so another idea can live. You de-cide.”

That might seem an odd parallel, but Lane is right about the common origin. The Latin verb was decidere, combining the prefix de (off or down) and caedere (to cut or strike). In making a decision, a person figuratively slices through the alternatives, lopping off the unwanted ones. A split decision – in which some people decide that one person won, and others insist that another won – is particularly nasty, since there’s a splitting of a cutting.

The Latin caedere also meant to kill or slay, which explains why, by way of the classical Latin form cidium, it defines the way we talk about taking lives. A suicide, from the modern Latin suicida (act of suicide) and suicidium (the person who kills himself), combines sui (of oneself) and caedere. Fratricide comes from frater (brother), matricide from mater (mother) and homicide from homo (man). This pattern has been used for all sorts of invented words. My favourite is stepicide, pronounced “step aside,” used to describe the ousting of a CEO in a boardroom coup.

There is no end to caedere’s usefulness. To be precise is to be exact, by cutting away extraneous detail. The word derives from praecidere, to shorten or abridge, a combination of prae (in front) and caedere (cut). English happily borrowed the French word précis to describe a summary, shortened from the whole. And if you need to cut something away, you’ll need scissors, derived by way of late Latin cisorium from, yes, caedere. To excise something is to cut (caedere) it out (ex), but the excise in excise tax has an entirely different root. It was borrowed in the mid-1400s from the Middle Dutch excijs and may ultimately be traced through Old French acceis to a Latin combination of ad (against or to) and census (tax). The census began as the registration of Romans and their belongings so they could have taxes levied against them – the unkindest cut of all.

Given the association of “cide” with death, one might be leery about downing a pint of cider. Fortunately, there is no connection, unless you tumble off a building after drinking a dozen of them. Cider comes from a Hebrew word variously written as sekar, shekar and shekhar. It appeared in the Bible as a synonym for any seriously intoxicating beverage. The Latin translation was sicera, which, once funnelled through Old French, became sidre. By the 1300s, when the English borrowed the word from the French, cider had come to be identified with apples, and that’s pretty much how it has remained, alcoholic or otherwise.

As an aside (not to be confused with a cide), it was pretty dangerous to ride the high c’s in Latin: fall (cadere), cut or kill (caedere), dead body (cadaver) and arrival in heaven (caelum), particularly if you ran afoul of Caesar.

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