independence

Independence Day celebrates the United States’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence (from Great Britain, in case you’ve never heard of this country called the United States) on July 4, 1776.  Celebrants mark the day with parades, barbecues, fireworks–and, if you’re me, etymologies, because nothing says “stars and stripes” quite like a good word origin.

I, for one, am going to declare independence independent from all its morphological bunting. That is, if we strip down to its root, what do we find?

First, here, in- means “not,” so we are left with “not dependence.” Then we have -ence, a suffix that forms abstract nouns from verbs, leaving us with “the condition of being dependent.” It varies with the French -ance (Latin, –entia), with French shifting Latin’s e to an a, though the endings are doing the same work. English has a fanfare of words like appearance in some cases and word like existence in other cases, all depending, shall I say, on which words were altered back from the French spelling to conform with the Latin spelling in Modern English’s early days.

So, now we are looking at depend, which, again, is Latin via French. The Latin dependēre, literally meaning “to hang down,” with de- denoting “down.”  At this point, we have Latin’s pendēre, “to hang,” cousin to pendere, “to weigh,” depending on the length of the vowel. (The bar above the e in pendēre is called a “macron,” signifying, essentially, a long vowel.)

The root, then, is pendwhich is hanging down from the Proto-Indo-European (s)pen-, “to draw, stretch, spin.” Down Germanic lines, the root gave English spin and span and a whole host of related words. Down the Italic line, with some vowel changes and some suffixes to the root, we get words like pound and ponderous. Of course, Latin’s very own pend- (in both forms) produces everything from appendix to compensate to pensive to stipend. Indeed, metaphor is having an impressive fireworks display with all that it has done with this root.

And then we have spangle, as in that star-spangled banner, the American flag and title of the US national anthem. (I could see the word becoming fossilized in the phrase; it’s certainly the only context I ever hear or see it in.)

 

The star-spangled banner said to have inspired Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem and, later, US national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Image courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Anyways, spangled is “decorated with spangles,” little pieces of glittering metal or the decorative like. The word most likely comes from the Middle Dutch spange, a “clasp” or “brooch,” with the notion of ornament as the connecting sense. Etymologists aren’t sure, but this spange may point back to a Germanic base, *spango-, a derivative of (s)pen-.

For my compatriots, Happy Fourth. But we all know what we’re really celebrating is that the holiday falls on a Friday. And nothing says “America” like a 3-day weekend.

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4 thoughts on “independence

  1. Even as a Brit my automatic word association when I hear the word ‘spangled’ is to your ‘star-spangled’ banner with the clichéd example of reminisces of childhood UK sweets ‘Spangles’ coming a close second.

    For ‘spangle’ older etymology dictionaries make a reference to Lithuanian spingu, spindżu, spingëti “to shine”; Greek φέγγος (phengos) “brilliancy”, σπινθήρ (spinthēr) “spark” and Sanskrit पाजस् (pājas) “brightness, glitter, sheen”. The Online Etymology Dictionary also suggested a possible connection with Lithuanian spingu, spindżu, spingëti “to shine” and Old Prussian spanksti “spark” to the word ‘spook’.

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    1. Interesting connections. The sense of “clasp” seems primary in the etymologies I’ve studied, with the characteristic glitter of a “spangle” coming later with English’s narrowing of the meaning as small, shiny ornament or the like. If it is related to the PIE for *(s)pen-, then the connecting sense is with “span” with the notion of a clasp spanning the (short?) distance that it so clasps

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