There has been a lot of Clive James on the radio recently. Apparently he is – in his own words – “getting near the end”, and I for one will be devastated when he reaches it. For he is, without doubt, one of our greatest wordsmiths, and his skill with our language is mesmeric. (If you are in a soundproof room, you may like to read his hysterical account of boyhood go-carting – it’s here, as the third of three short essays.) I too love the English language – I relish its diversity, its mongrel roots, its nuances and flavours. I enjoy the fact that you can be not exactly ashamed or embarrassed or abashed, but slightly humiliated – a fine distinction that is lost in many other languages. And sometimes, absorbed as we are in our daily responsibilities, we can forget the beauty of the words we use so often.
Fiduciary, for instance. Isn’t it lovely? It comes from fides, the Latin for faith, which in turn led to fiducia, or trust. Rather more basic, but no less vital is bank. This comes from much older words (banca in Italian, banc in High German) all meaning “bench”, which is what a bank was at first – a bench on which money was counted out. What about one of our favourites – diligence? This starts life as dis- and legere – that’s Latin for “to gather apart”, in other words, to select, eventually ending up as diligentia – or attentiveness or carefulness. And of course we cannot forget one of our most important words: suspicion. The original Latin verb was suspicere – to look up at. This gave us suspectionem (mistrust, fear or awe), which the French made into soupçon – et voilà! So next time you are berating a relationship or account manager (from the Latin manus, meaning hand – so one who handles things) for his lack of diligence, do remind him of that other important Latin verb – prehendere. Meaning “to take”, it leads us via prensionem (a taking) directly to prison – as it will him.