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March 31, 2017  |  Friday words #66, 2017-03-31  |  3653 hit(s)

After a wee hiatus due to job things and conference things, we're back for some more Friday words! Hard today for me to sit at the desk and do this because here in Seattle we have some actual sunshine.

The new term today is rent-seeking. This isn't a completely new word for me—it's sort of the lexical equivalent of that person at your company that you see in the lunchroom sometimes but have never been properly introduced to. Anyway, I was reading some article and ran across it again and thought that maybe I should look it up.

You can almost (?) guess what the word means from its constituent parts. Rent-seeking refers to trying to get unwarranted economic advantage, where "unwarranted" means without giving anything in return to a specific entity or to society as a whole. Some typical examples are an industry lobbying to get import tariffs, to get government subsidies, or to try to use government regulation to stifle competition.

In my pokings-about, I found a piece that asked the same question I had: why rent-seeking? If I understand the article right, rent here refers to extra cost to do business. In this context, a tariff is a cost (rent) to your competitor for doing business in your country. To be clear, rent-seeking is generally considered something that ends up costing consumers and the overall GDP, since it's not productive use of money. There's more in the article if you're curious.

As a bonus new term, I'll note that the Oxford Dictionaries site just introduced me to the term pogonophobia—hatred of beards.

On to etymology. I've probably seen the word subpoena ten thousand (myriad) times, but I only recently wondered where it came from. As an aside, subpoena arrived in stages in English: as a noun (1426), as an adverb—"being issued sub peona" (1466), and as a verb (1640).

We get the word from Latin sub poena, "under penalty," which various sources say were the first words of the writ that coerces an appearance before the court. That seems clear enough, but it struck me that this was perhaps an unusual derivation—namely, a term based on the first word(s) of a text. I tried to come up about other examples of this type of derivation, and assembled this short list:
  • Hail Mary, referring to the Catholic prayer ("say five Hail Marys") and extended further to a last-ditch strategy, as in "a hail-Mary pass" from American football. This term comes from the first two words of the Catholic prayer, Ave Maria in Latin. Along similar lines we have the term Our Father, a.k.a. the Lord's Prayer (Latin: pater noster), used as a noun.

  • The noun ABC ("now we know our ABCs"), a synonym for the alphabet and as a term meaning the basic tenets of.

  • Lorem ipsum, referring to some widely used filler text.

  • Various songs and rhymes, like "London Bridge" and "Ring Around the Rosie," whose titles are the first lines of the rhymes.
It feels like I know of other examples of this phenomenon, but they're just out of reach. And I can't figure out exactly how to search for a thing like this.

There's also the question about whether there's a word for the type of etymology. Future investigation, I guess.

Update #1 (31 Mar 2017) Following some tips I got from lexicographer Ben Zimmer, I looked in the OED for more entries based on "first word(s)" or "opening word(s)" and came up with these additional terms:
  • credo
  • dirge (< Dirige)
  • Internet (OED: "… the collection of networks gradually came to be called the 'Internet', borrowing the first word of 'Internet Protocol'.")
  • Magnificat
  • Stabat Mater
  • Te Deum
As the lexicographer Orin Hargraves points out, the church liturgy has been a rich source of such terms.

Update #2 (31 Mar 2017) And regarding what to call these things. There is apparently no established term. Ben Zimmer suggests "The opening of a Mass is called the Introit, so maybe we could call these introitisms?" And Orin Hargraves suggests a term I really like: prolegonym, which we can gloss as something like "intro-name" (cf prologue).

Update #3 (5 Mar 2018) On Twitter, John Kelly (@mashedradish) suggested that we could add the terms recipe (imperative of "to receive") and item ("heading") to the list of prolegonyms.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

Paul Nance   05 Mar 18 - 1:17 PM

As to what to call these, how about including the Latin incipit, already used in English for the first words of a text. I'm not sure how to indicate that it refers to the beginning of word. incipitonym doesn't seem quite right, and while inciponym rolls off the tongue, it probably violates Latin morphology.