The secret of *nem-

Last post, we saw that the math in aftermath has nothing to do with numbers. But two other words I’ve recently covered, numb and nimble, may indeed be all about them, if we do some etymological accounting of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root, *nem-.

Crunching the etymological numbers.
Crunching the etymological numbers. “Calculator.” Ink and ballpoint pen on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


To review, both numb and nimble derive from an Old English verb, nim, functioning much like today’s take, which supplanted it in Middle English. For the ancient root of this nim, Indo-European scholars have reconstructed the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *nem-, which meant “to assign,” “to allot,” or, like nim, “to take,” thanks to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots’ gloss. (Compare the nominal use of take in English). This root evolved in some interesting ways across some of the Indo-European languages, eventually emerging in some other English words.  Let’s start with Greek.

Heaven and earth 

Angus Deaton won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics. A rare astronomical event, the Super Blood Moon, recently captivated us all. Both economy and astronomy derive from Greek: The former literally means “household management,” astronomy “star arrangement.” Ancient Greek had νόμος (nomos), with widely various meanings of “law,” “custom,” “usage,” and even “song.” But these, according to the great philological work of Liddell and Scott, were metaphorical usages of nomos’ earliest meaning: “a feeding-place for cattle” and, by extension, “pasture” and “food.”

How do we get from the earth to the stars? Nomos is formed from a verb νέμειν (nemein), also deriving from that PIE *nemmeaning “to deal out,” “distribute,” or “manage.” The connecting sense is of something allotted, as for a particular purpose, like a pasture or a dwelling, which one then must maintain, or something divided up in a particular way, as in a melody or a constellation.

The Greek nemein exacts further etymological dues, so to speak, in nemesis. In ancient Greece, this word named an important concept, personified in the form of the goddess Nemesis. Liddell and Scott’s Greek lexicography is again helpful in defining the word (emphasis original): nemesis is “distribution of what is due; hence, a righteous assignment of anger, wrath at anything unjust, just resentment,” particularly “indignation at undeserved good fortune.”

In these days of extreme inequality, whose complexity and urgency Angus Deaton is measuring, some might say we could use a little nemesis in the historic sense of the word. Of course, we have plenty of nemeses in today’s sense, which the Oxford English Dictionary dates as a North American usage in the 1930s.

Ranging ranges

Now, let’s wander to ancient Rome. Certain people have a roaming allotment, shall we say; people whose flocks or herds graze far and wide for their pasture. We might call them nomads. The Romans did, originally referring to certain Arabic pastoral tribes, the Nomades, or Numidians. The name is ultimately num – I mean taken – from that Greek nomos.

Economists, we know, are quiet adept with numbers. The word number, from the Latin numerus and picking up a b (much in the way a word like numb did) as it passed into English from the French, might also derive from that PIE *nem-. The innumerable meanings of this derivative in English are simply too many in number to enumerate; you might never be number after that math.

Calculator_ink and ballpoint pen on paper_Scribblem ∫ r ∫


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