Friday, 30 September 2016
Today we have our final Friday words for September 2016. As if that were significant.
The first new-to-me word this week is Droste effect, which refers to a kind of visual recursion. A picture here is worth a couple dozen words:
Note that the woman in the picture is holding a tray that has package that shows a woman holding a tray that has a package that …
You probably noticed that the image here has "Droste" splashed across it. Droste was (is?) the name of a chocolate powder product from Holland. So it's an example of a specific instance of the phenomenon becoming the name of the phenomenon. (Is there a name for that?)
As sometimes happens, I was familiar with the concept without knowing that there was a word for it. I remember being fascinated by this idea when I was a young lad, because I had some … thing … that had this type of recursive image on a package logo. Whatever—I learned this word from an article on medium.com that addressed itself to some linguistic ideas that have recently been in the news, including linguistic recursion.
As an aside, at work we use a lot of video conferencing, and it's easy for people to get into a video version of the Droste effect—for example, when someone shares their screen which shows the meeting, which shows someone sharing their screen, which …
And on to surprising etymology. Recently I was looking into how words that are acceptable can become tainted (a process referred to as pejoration). In my wanderings I encountered idiot. Today, of course, this is an insulting term, but it was once a clinical—hence, respectable—term for someone with a particular level of cognitive impairment. That was interesting enough, but where'd they even get this word?
My investigations revealed that, first of all, the sense of "stupid person" is waaaay old—1300s (at least) in English, and represented in many other European languages, including Latin. (Which raises the question of how this term could have achieved some sort of clinical respectability.) But I also learned that there's a secondary meaning for idiot that means something like "layman" or "private individual." These senses are actually related, it seems. In ancient Greek, the root word meant someone who was "a person without professional knowledge," also an "ill-informed person." Perhaps someone whose opinions on complex subjects you might not seek out. (As indeed is still true today.)
The idio- part is shared with terms like idiosyncratic and idiolect, and means "self" or "personal" or "distinct. In other words, "unique to the self," which has semantic overlap with the idea of "private." Anyway, this was all more involved than I would have thought. That's why we have these little investigations innit.
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Friday words, language