Sunday, July 09, 2006

Sincerely Yours

Anyone can be fooled by folk etymology. In essence, humans are fabricators; we would rather make something up or grasp at an off-the-wall explanation than admit that some things have been lost in the mists of history and that others are painfully prosaic in origin. So if someone can come along with an imaginative story that has even a shred of possibility to it, we bite.

One that fooled me until about a decade ago was the origin of the word sincere. The story given was plausible enough. In ancient Rome, sculptors worked in a lucrative trade. Private parties and public works used their services frequently and rewarded them handsomely. But occasionally an unscrupulous sculptor would botch a job and look for a quick fix. A popular ruse was to fill in a crack or a botched chisel mark with wax. It could be smoothed over and made to match the color of the stone by mixing in powdered rock. The catch was that on a very hot day on the banks of the Tiber, the wax would melt, and the owner would discover that he had been cheated.

All of this was validated by the alleged origin of the word sincere: sine cera, without wax. Actually, those are two legitimate Latin words. The story above went on to add that honest sculptors would advertise that their work was sine cera. No wax job here, domine.

And I think that analogical thinking further sucked me in. The word sinecure (any office or position which has no work or duties attached to it, especially one that yields a stipend) truly comes from the Latin sine cure, signifying an ecclesiastical benefice that comes without care of souls. That made without wax seem even more probable as an explanation for sincere.

As it turns out, the only wax involved was in my ears. Unabridged dictionaries reveal that the actual source was probably sim- (one, as in simplex, onefold) or sem- (one, as in semel, once). And the -cere segment owes its origin to crescere, to grow. This combination produced the Latin adjective sincerus--clean, pure, sound. The Oxford English Dictionary feels compelled to add this disclaimer: “There is no probability in the old explanation from sine cera, without wax.”

So, bite the wax tadpole, dude.

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