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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-12-7)

No sooner had I sent off my last column on back-formations than a surprising candidate popped up, too late for inclusion. The word is “burgle”. It turns out that this is a back-formation from “burglar”, a word of uncertain origin which means what we all know it means – “a person who enters a building as a trespasser (before 1969, by night) to commit a felony…” (Chambers Dictionary). Don’t ask me what happened in 1969 to extend the definition to include daylight intrusions; that’s what The Dictionary says. Long ago, the word was a verb as well – you could burglar a house; but no longer. In North America the verb became “burglarize”; elsewhere, the word “burgle” was invented to fill the need for a verb. A runner runs; a burglar burgles. Right? Well, not quite, but it will do.

Those of a sensitive disposition should now tune to another channel. We are venturing into steamy territory here: the derivation of the word “condom”.

(This may be my first and only contribution to etymology. For once, I think I know something that has escaped the attention of the lexicographers.) The Chambers Dictionary says “Perhaps from the name of the inventor.” Oh, come on! Someone called Monsieur Condom? I don’t believe it.

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1978 revision) lists the word only among the addenda, and says “Origin unkn.” Honest, but unsatisfactory.

And this is where I enter the field. A great while ago, when I was a teenager at school, a book came into surreptitious circulation among us randy juveniles. I have long forgotten its author’s name (I think he was an American doctor), but the book’s name was Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living. We passed it from hand to hand, and read it with bug-eyed enthusiasm: if this was sanity, the future suddenly looked a lot more promising than it had before.

The book’s author, when things became embarrassing, resorted to Latin terminology. Under the general heading of having fun but avoiding pregnancy, he mentioned “coitus (intercourse) interruptus” – where the male participant was expected to withdraw himself before the critical moment and go and make some tea. (We, the readers, agreed that this was, at best, unlikely.) His next suggestion was “coitus condomatus” – intercourse with a rubber sheath. I’m as sure as I can be that this is the origin of “condom.”

Classical Latin had the verb “domo”, meaning “to tame, subdue.” The prefix “con” is an intensifier implying “wholly”. Strictly speaking, the adjective should be “condomitus” (the Latin verb is irregular), but let’s not split hairs here – whichever way you spell it, the word means “entirely subdued.” And that’s good enough for me as a description of what’s going on here. Problem solved? Perhaps

I shall write to the publishers of my favourite dictionary with this suggestion. If I get any reaction, you will hear about it.

Things being as they are, this may be my last opportunity to wish you A Merry Christmas – or, as we mentioned in no 26 of this series, A Happy Holiday Season. I do so: may it be memorable, and safe. Cheers!

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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