The New Year–so full of possibility, fresh starts, new…endings?
End may seem like such a simple word, but it turns out to be a bit more complex, etymologically speaking.
The form of the word has changed little from the Old English ende, where it once also meant, according to Oxford, “termination,” “completion,” “death,” “event,” issue,” “intended result,” and “purpose.” Some of these have stuck around: He met his end. The ends justify the means. Odds and ends retains its sense of “remnant,” while in ends of the earth or the West End survives a meaning of “region.” The Online Etymology Dictionary also glosses “boundary,” “species,” and “class,” which will make more sense with our further inspection of this useful monosyllable.
End derives from the Proto-Germanic *andja- and the Proto-Indo-European *antjo, which in turn comes from *ant-, as in “opposite,” “in front of,” “front,” “before,” or “against.” In its earliest form, *ant– may very well have originally meant “forehead.”
You may well recognize this ever productive root in the prefixes anti- (against) and ante- (before). As Shipley delightfully puts it, “Both forms are still live; thus we may say anti-Nixon as well as ante-Nixon.”
There seems to be no, um, end to this word family. Related are big words, academic words, fancy words, unusual words: antediluvian, antemeridian, antipathy, anticipate, antichrist, antipasto, antidisestablishmentarianism. Related are humble, little, everyday, I-could-barely-go-a-sentence-without-them words: and, until, and (yep) even along, originally andlang. And then we have my favorite here at Mashed Radish: the surprising words, like answer and antic.
Answer originally meant “to swear against,” taking the form andswaru in Old English and blending a related form of end, *and-, and *swar– (Oxford: “solemn affirmation in rebutting a charge”), which gives us “swear.” The gravity of words often lessen overtime (cf. awesome), but the erstwhile seriousness of answer may well have stuck around in answerable.
Antics, as in foolish behavior, is from antic, characterizing something as “grotesque” or “fantastic.” It comes from the Italian antico (ancient), from Latin’s antiquus (old), which, as with Italian’s own grottesco (grotesque), was in the 16th-century “applied to the fantastic figures found in ancient Roman remains, and subsequently to anything grotesque” (Oxford). The Online Etymology Dictionary more specifically notes that antico referred “to the strange and fantastic representations on ancient murals unearthed around Rome (especially originally the Baths of Titus, rediscovered 16c.)” I’m going to guess the unanswerable antics of (very well-endowed) satyrs and centaurs.
And if you didn’t already guess it, yes, antique and ancient are also related to end.
Every Ending’s a Beginning
When I think of end, the anatomical feature that comes to mind is certainly not “forehead.” (Nor is it when I think of Nixon.) But, at the risk of being hackneyed, every ending is a beginning.
Endings and beginnings, like any new year, are about boundaries, about thresholds–mutually defined, interdependent, ouroboric. And, as subjective organisms, as embodied consciousnesses in the world, adapted to a specific world, are our bodies not the ultimate markers of those boundaries? My front, my forehead, is where I end, and, in my experience of you, in my experience of another, it is your front, your forehead, where you begin. Our bodies, at their most basic level, orienting us in space, in time, in relationships, in language.
The end. Or, the beginning.