It’s finals week at many colleges across the U.S., which means our bug-eyed and heavy-lidded crammers are most certainly weighing topical, etymological matters as they prepare for their final exams. It turns out, though, that the word exam is all about weight–and even bugs.

"Exam." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Exam.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Exam is short for examination, of course. It comes from a Latin verbexamināre. Much like its English derivative examine, the verb signified “to consider critically.” However, in its original usage, it meant “to weigh accurately” or “balance,” from a nounexāmen, the “the needle or tongue of the scale,” “scale beam,” or, more generally, a “means of weighing.”

The language of thought can indeed be metaphorical–and many would argue much of thought itself is so. As we’ve so frequently seen here before, etymology helps us reveal these metaphors. For the Ancient Romans, a careful consideration–an examination–was likened to weighing an object on a scale, sizing it up through balance. English itself is already heavy with this metaphor; consider how we might weigh two choices against each other in making a decision.

Latin has given us other examples of this weight/consideration metaphor. At root of the word to deliberate is libra, a “scale,” source of the abbreviation lb. and the astrological sign. It is also in equilibrium makes for an equal, or balanced, scale. A pound and to ponder are cognates. The former is from a Germanic root referring to a measure of weight; the latter ultimately comes from a Latin word for much the same. Both come from a common Indo-European root.

Other words for various modes of thought–to analyze or mull–yield yet other interesting metaphors, but we can treat those on a later occasion, as I imagine our midnight oil burners feel swarmed enough as it is. Indeed, the principal meaning of examen in Latin is “swarm,” as in a swarm of insects.

Weights and swarms–is there a connection? Metaphor again comes to our etymological aid again. Upon closer examination, examen, with a proposed earlier form of *exagmen, derives from another Latin verb, exigere, “to drive out.” The sense, as the Oxford English Dictionary aids me, may resemble a swarm of bees, say, driven out of a hive. This exigere is itself composed of the prefix ex– (“out of”) and agere, “to do,” “act,” “drive.”  Both of these components simply litter the English language–and perhaps that they have changed little from their Proto-Indo-European roots, the former seen in *eghs- (“out”) and the latter, ag– (“drive,” “draw,” “move,”), attests to their value.  Very apt, students: drive those exams out.

Now, in English, examine could take on a very specific sense in its young days, among its other early meanings which closely parallel its meanings today. In the 14th and 15th centuries, it was the alchemist who was busy examining, which points us to our next post: test.

m ∫ r ∫


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