The mysterious etymology of "elementum"

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
So, I was reading this article about Dr. Stephanie Frampton at MIT regarding classical book collections:


Which contained, among other interesting tidbits:

In Latin the word “elementa” means both atoms and letters, and likely comes from the alphabet’s “L,M,N” sequence.
No way, I thought. That's got to be a folk etymology. And yet, when I googled it, here's what Wiktionary had to say:

Of uncertain origin. Perhaps ultimately from L M N, first three letters of the second half of the Canaanite alphabet, recited by ancient scribes when learning it (in sense compare English ABC(s) (“fundamentals”)). This idea has been criticized though due to the absence of any evidence for use of a half-split in the Latin alphabet itself and the lack of evidence for the use of "el", "em", and "en" as letter names in early Latin. An alternative related idea is that elementum was borrowed into Latin from a Semitic term (probably via Egyptian) halaḥama, which derives from the old South Semitic initial character sequence, h-l-ḥ-m..., though this presents some difficulties as well.
Interesting, certainly (even if it still strikes me as rather bit far-fetched). But then it continued:

Alternatively could be a neologism to translate the equivalent Greek term στοιχεῖον (stoikheîon, “element, letter”)(introduced in the sense of "element" by Plato), which, like the Latin elementum, has the dual meaning of "element" and "letter". This neologism would be modelled on and alluding to alimentum (“nourishment”), modified to be a mnemonic for the sequence of letters "L M N"; this would make it related to alere (“to nourish”), olēscere (“to grow”), both from Proto-Indo-European*h₂el-.[1]
Huh? I'm confused. Why would someone model a neologism for "letter" on the word for "nourishment"? What have the two got to do with one another? I've read this paragraph five times at least and still can't figure out what they're talking about.

Does anyone else have any information on this bizarre etymological mystery?
 

Issacus Divus

King under the heavens
Yeah, that neologism seems rather unlikely. halaḥama is interesting though.
 

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
This is what L&S gives, though they don't explain why elementum should be at all related to alimentum (I suppose the reasoning is that the elements somehow bring the universe into being by "nurturing" it?)

ĕlĕmentum, i, n. root al-, to nourish;Gr. ἄν-αλ-τος, ἄλσος; Lat. alo, alimentum, etc.; cf. Sanscr. al-akā, a girl.
 

Issacus Divus

King under the heavens
Yeah, I’m stumped really. It seems that they’re bringing up alimentum just because they look somewhat alike.
 

Hemo Rusticus

J. Wellington Wimpy
Never thought about this word, but the above is phenomenally interesting.

That the Romans were clever enough to calque certain Greek words considered useful enough is not unique (the Slavs are supposed to have done the same thing with speculum), and we can tell by how productive -mentum is in Latin (itself an extension of such nasal stems in -men as nomen) why they would've thought it a good match for a derivative neuter word like στοιχεῖον.

But, if we are to believe the L-M-N etymology (which to me sounds perfectly reasonable), any likeness in sound to alimentum or anything else goes out the window, whether or not the resemblance would've pleased the speaker. That is, a folk etymology is intrinsically secondary (like a back-formation), and it happens because the speaker no longer clearly recognizes the constituent morphemes of the word, whether it's a loan (like 'sparrowgrass' < asparagus) or native (like 'island' < igland).

It seems impossible that, if this word really had been based on a simple bit of pedagogy like the alphabet, anyone would've been confused about its history. That would be like our remodeling the word 'abecedarian' after 'abracadabra'.
 

Hemo Rusticus

J. Wellington Wimpy
Granted, sophistos and literary scurrae have always been fond of likening one word to another just to strut their stuff (in Spenser you often find 'crystal' spelled 'Christal'), and the 'grow' sememe doesn't seem too far a cry from the obvious Greek original, that is στείχω 'march, go in a straight line' (as the στοιχεῖον did depending on the time of day). But it is not proper to call this sort of literary remodeling, as such, a folk etymology.
 

Issacus Divus

King under the heavens
Abracadabra is such an interesting word too.
 

Hemo Rusticus

J. Wellington Wimpy
Avada Kedavra? Inna Gotta Divita?
 

Ser

鳥王
For yet another proposal, Diels published a paper in 1899 proposing a modification of elephantus as the origin.

Inspired by Quintilian I.1.26 ('Nor do I exclude that practice of giving children ivory letter shapes to play to incite them to learn.'), he supposed that Greek ἐλέφας ἐλέφαντος was borrowed separately with neuter gender and the a > e change of τάλαντον > talentum and other words, then going from *elephentum to *elementum due to non-native accents. In support, elephās/elephantus usually means 'elephant' in attested Latin, but it occasionally means 'ivory'. Volgraff discussing this proposal in 1949 notes it'd be easier to just say it was remodelled with the suffix -mentum, and that furthermore, ivory is attested in Roman archeological sites by the end of the 2nd millennium, which disappears right after but then reappears in the 7th century BC. He hypothesizes that maybe the ivory play pieces were beads, and they weren't necessarily made of actual ivory, mentioning the use of the word for "coral" in Dutch (koraal, kraal) for beads in general of any material, and a similar use of "pearl" in French (la perle) for pearl-like objects of any material (I note from the TLF: perles argentées 'silver beads', perles de sang 'blood drops', perles du vin 'wine drops').

To defend the interpretation of 'beads', he mentions that while στοῖχος means 'ordered row or line [of people or items]' (Volgraff: "soldiers, choral movements, animals, ships, vegetables, rocks, pillars, stakes/posts and teeth"), the derived στοιχεῖον was used for an individual item in the arrangement. He mentions a quotation from Plutarch discussing an old 6th-c. BC pythagorean Petron of Himera, in which Petron believed that there were 183 worlds in total arranged as στοιχεῖα ("beads?") in a triangle of 60×3 + the 3 vertices, that Plato in the late 5th c. still excuses himself for using στοιχεῖα figuratively in the Theaetetus and the Cratylus, and that Theophrastus in his Enquiry into Plants (VIII.4.2) in the 4th c. uses στοιχεῖα to talk about how grains appear orderly arranged in barley (as opposed to wheat).

Volgraff then supposes that after elementum lost the meaning 'ivory', the new primary meaning of the word became beads as from a necklace, and figuratively the letters of the alphabet. Its use to render the meaning 'basic steps or parts of something' of στοιχεῖον and the related philosophical meanings (the Four Elements as in Cicero, the Epicurean atoms as in Lucretius, or the categories of Aristotle) would come later still, from a lingering knowledge of the literal/physical meaning 'bead' of στοιχεῖον, which was matched with the use of elementum for beads. Cicero excuses himself for making up a translation of στοιχεῖον in that passage in fact (Itaque aer (hoc quoque utimur enim pro Latino) et ignis et aqua et terra prima sunt; ex his autem ortae animantium formae earumque rerum quae gignuntur e terra; ergo illa initia et, ut e Graeco vertam, elementa dicuntur.--Academica I.26).

But again, this all relies on a hypothesized meaning 'bead' of elementum that is not attested, and only faintly detectable (if it existed at all) from the meaning 'letter of the alphabet', its resemblance of elephās/elephantus (and the quotation of Quintilian about "ivory shapes"), and its use to render στοιχεῖον.

Still sounds a bit too far-fetched to me, but hey, we're in the business of far-fetched etymologies in this thread anyway, lacking better options.
 
Last edited:

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
For yet another proposal, Diels published a paper in 1899 proposing a modification of elephantus as the origin.
Interesting, though I agree it sounds far-fetched. But, well, weird things do happen in language evolution.
 

Terry S.

Quaestor
Staff member
Avada Kedavra?
That's a corruption of the English avadakebabma, an unclever way of telling one's mother that one will not be eating the meal she has lovingly prepared. People have been known to experience green flashes and extreme pain after this utterance.
 

Ser

鳥王
Sorry, what is this? I'm afraid I'm lost.
A sememe is a specific meaning, usually a pretty basic one, talked about in abstract ways usually about how it is implied in many words. Like how "to fly" and "to run" kind of imply the sememes "move" and "go (somewhere)". Now why Hemo says that the basic abstract notion of "growing" is similar to the notion of "marching", that I don't know.


(A sememe can also be one of the various specific meanings of one specific word, like how Latin taenia has the basic sememe 'headband, hairband, clothtape to make ribbons', and by the similarity of physical shape also 'tapeworm', 'ribbonfish', the little curved band below the separator (cymatium) of an architrave and frieze interrupted by guttae/drops, an ink 'streak' on paper, 'bookmark', 'conveyor belt' like those of factories, and any kind of media 'tape' whether that of cassettes or movie reels. Metaphorically it also gets 'line of projecting rocks in the sea', and metonymyically, from the meaning of tape, a 'movie' of any type. Isn't this word fun?)
 

Issacus Divus

King under the heavens
Hemo is currently answering that question now.
 

Hemo Rusticus

J. Wellington Wimpy
I meant that a remodeling based on the 'grow' sememe of alimentum isn't any less reasonable, if the shadow was thought to 'grow' depending on the time of day, than Greek making the word out of στείχω.
 

Hemo Rusticus

J. Wellington Wimpy
At least, I think that's what I meant...
 
Top