*gno- (part ii)

In Part 1, we studied the origins of the English knowcnaw–rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *gno-, “to know.” As we saw, down the Germanic line, this *gno– eventually parented the English cancouldcunningcouth/uncouthcanny/uncanny, a sense of the word con, and keen.

In Greek, it produced gignoskein, with the derivative gnostos. This yielded diagnosisprognosis, as well as good old gnosis, in all of its mystical and philosophical glory. Perhaps Gnosticism rings a bell, or agnostic, coined by T.H. Huxley in 1869 or 1870. And agnosia–literally “without knowledge”– describes a whole category of unusual neurological disorders, such as prosopagnosia, so-called “face-blindness.”

Roman “*Gno-se”

In Latin,*gno- took on inflections to become gnoscere (“to know,” “learn,” “recognize,” among others), with the later variant noscere, as well as gnarus (“having knowledge of,” “skilled,” “familiar”). The g once carried phonetic weight, making the first syllable of gnoscere sound like, say, the cluster ngn in hangnail or the gn in the Italian signora.

Noscere‘s offshoots will be the focus of this post, and let’s just say that I don’t think you could have gotten through high school without making use of them:

  • Perhaps you took them copiously, played them on your tuba, or passed them in the class? Note is from the past participial form of noscere, notus. Literally, it is a “known” thing, and, aside from the many meanings of “note,” it also gives English notation, notable, notion, notice, and notary public.
  • The French Revolution or periodic table? From the adjective nobilis, and an earlier form gnobilis, is noble. Originally, it meant “known,” “famous,” and “excellent,” referring, too, to aristocratic senses. As far as noble gases are concerned, I always heard the explanation that the elements are so-called noble because, like aristocrats who did not like to mix with the masses, so they did not like to react with other elements. This is a little folky, but certain metals were once referred to as noble, due to their special qualities, and so this functioned as an analog to chemist Hugo Erdmann in 1898, apparently.
  • Cafeteria insult or losing utterance in class debate? Ignorant takes its shape from gnarus, joining and assimilating the prefix in-, which, here, serves to negate. So, ignorant is, quite simply, “not knowing.” To ignore is also “not to know,” but its modern meanings comes about rather late. Ignoramus is a full-fledged Latin verb, “we do not know,” and emerges from a 16th-century legal term jurors issued in the face of insufficient evidence. A satire of the common lawyer (in a 1615 play) later dressed it as ridicule (ODEE).
  • First-person, unreliable, stream-of-consciousness? Narrative also is a story told by gnarus, “knowing.” It generated the Latin verb narrare, “to make known” or “to relate” (Skeat). I think the sense of “relate” as narrating is fast fading, but, anyways, from narrare came everyone’s favorite thing to have to find on 9th-grade standardized tests.
  • Maybe you delved into a little psychology or dug deep into a thesaurus for an imprecise dress-up of more ordinary and better-called for diction? Cognition joins an assimilated for of com– (“with, together”) and gnoscere, adding up to “to get acquainted with, get to know.” From it, we’ve also gotten to know, via French, reconnaissance, recognizance, cognizance, and reconnoiter.
  • Did your English teacher like to point out its salacious pun in so many poems? Quaint, oh how far your form and sense has come! Like cognition, the word is rooted in cognoscere. Just as notus was noscere‘s past participle, so cognitus (“well-known”) was cognoscere‘s. In French, it shed its ending and merge its medial sounds, yielding coint, “fine” and “neat.” If you keep French pronunciation in mind, you might see how English rendered the word as queintquoint, and, now, quaint. It started out meaning “skillful,” “crafty,” “pretty,” and “ingenious” (Skeat; Weekley), evolved to “odd” and “whimsical” (Skeat) as well as the now better known “old-fashioned.” Acquaint and acquaintance are also offspring of cognoscere. 

Etymologically, knowledge–as far as *gno– is concerned–may not be “power,” but it’s just about everything else.

m ∫ r ∫


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