Jewish World Review Dec. 15, 2003 / 20 Kislev, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
"Ostracize" and "oyster''?; Where does the "mentor'' come from?; "jeopard''
I know that to ostracize someone means to banish or exclude that person from a place or group. Recently I learned that the word "ostracize'' shares a similar root as the word "oyster.'' How are the two words related? K.O., Warwick, R.I.
In ancient Greece, prominent citizens whose power or influence threatened the stability of the state could be exiled by a practice called ostracism. During annual elections held in Athens, voters could elect to banish another citizen by writing that citizen's name down on a potsherd (a fragment of earthenware or tile). Citizens who received the required number of votes (usually a majority of at least six thousand) would then be subject to temporary exile from the state (usually for ten years). The Greek word "ostrakon'' referred to the shell used in this voting process and was related to "ostreon,'' the word for "oyster,'' which has a rough, irregular shell. "Ostrakon'' begat the verb "ostrakizein,'' meaning "to banish by voting with potsherds,'' the direct ancestor to our "ostracize.''
When the word "ostracism'' first appeared in English in the 16th century, it was used only to refer to the old Athenian custom. The word is now used to refer to any kind of banishment from a group, usually inflicted on a social level.
Dear Editor: We're hearing a lot these days about "mentoring'' programs. Where does the "mentor'' come from? R.B., Longview, Texas
"Mentor'' is the name of a character in Homer's "Odyssey'' who serves as the advisor of young Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. A wise and trusted counselor, Mentor is especially helpful because much of the time he is actually the goddess Athena, who assumes Mentor's identity in order to give Telemachus advice and information.
Today, the word "mentor'' is applied to a senior person, often in an organization, who assists less-experienced and usually younger persons to succeed. The concept is so familiar that, as you've noted, it has turned into a verb.
I came across the word "jeopard'' in an old book recently. Is this a misspelling or a typo intended to be "jeopardize''? A.K., Baltimore, Md.
No, it's a legitimate word in its own right.
It may be hard for you (or any modern reader) to believe that that "jeopardize'' was once controversial, but in 1870 the grammarian Richard Grant White called it "a foolish and intolerable word.'' His view was shared by many 19th-century American critics. The preferred verb was the one you've noted - "jeopard,'' a much older word that first appeared in print in the 14th century, but that had fallen into disuse by the 1600s. (The upstart "jeopardize'' first turned up in 1582, but grammarians still hadn't acknowledged it as an acceptable word 300 years later.) In 1828, Noah Webster himself declared "jeopardize'' to be "a modern word, used by respectable writers in America, but synonymous with 'jeopard,' and therefore useless.''
Useless or not, "jeopardize'' became increasingly common in both America and Great Britain, as attempts to resurrect "jeopard'' met with predictable failure. In fact, the primarily American protests against "jeopardize'' began to die down by 1900, and it has now been about a hundred years since anyone has raised any serious objections to its use. "Jeopard,'' on the other hand, is now used only in recalling the language of the past.
Incidentally, these words derive ultimately from the Anglo-French noun "jeuparti,'' which means "alternative'' or, literally, "divided game.''
Appreciate this column? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
12/02/03: "Karats'' and "carats'' meaning of and difference between; why apostrophe in "'cello''?; "hell-bent for leather''
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services