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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I, i: November The Alphabet Project

All November I'll be blogging about the alphabet and word origins.

I, i From the Canaanite yodh, “hand.” The Greeks pared it down to a single stroke, (I) iota, which, being their smallest letter, became a metaphor for anything tiny or insignificant, “not one iota.” The King James Bible translated iota as “jot;” “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Matthew 5:18). To this day, jot remains a noun, “a small or insignificant thing” as well as a being a verb, “to write quickly or briefly.” Parenthetically, a tittle refers to a small mark over a letter, such as the dot floating over the lower-case I, introduced during the Middle Ages to prevent confusion with similar-looking letters.

Ignus and lignus: Medieval scholars proposed an ingenious etymology for the Latin words, ignus, “ignite,” and lignus, “wood.” Wood, they supposed, burned easily because it already had fire inside it. Modern etymologists chuckle up their sleeves at this, as they do at the folk etymology that woman means “woe to man.” These na├»ve guesses lack empirical support, but are meaningful to anyone who believes them. Who can doubt there is evil in the devil?

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