Should old acquaintance be forgot, as we sing in the New Year with Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne.” While we may be well-acquainted with this tradition, the etymology of the word acquaintance may be much less well-known, shall we say.
English gets acquainted with acquaintance from French sometime around the 1300s, at least as the written record is concerned. Deriving from the Old French acointance, acquaintance originally referred to “friendship” or “friend.”
These are the acquaintances we take a cup of kindness to. For only later did the word shade towards its very useful distinction of “someone who is known but not a close friend,” as Merriam-Webster concisely glosses it. Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that the sense of acquaintance referring to actual persons – as opposed to the condition of so knowing persons – is “not paralleled in the Romance languages.”
Around the same time English borrowed acquaintance, it also borrowed the word’s root verb: acquaint, from the French verb acointier, “to make the acquaintance (of a person),” among many other meanings (and spellings) that evolved in the language over time.
Now, the French acointier – as I’m sure you’ve guessed if you’re at all acquainted with Romance languages or this blog – comes from Latin. Here, we are ultimately looking at accognitus, past participle of accognoscere, “to know well.” This verb, in turn, joins ad-, “to,” and cognoscere, “to come to know.” Cognoscere itself joins cum-, “with,” and gnoscere, “to know.”
If we dig deeper, Indo-European scholars link Latin’s gnoscere to *gno-, “to know,” a very prolific root. Last year, we saw this root’s many offspring – from could to narrative – in two posts: “*Gno– (Part I)” and “*Gno– (Part II).”
In this etymological light, acquaintance almost looks like a complete stranger, but that’s just how the sound, shape, and sense of words change over time. Just like the word quaint, indeed a cousin of acquaintance, as I wrote in “*Gno– (Part II)”:
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 queint, quoint, 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.”
So, whaddaya know? Lest we forget, that’s what acquaintance is all about.
Happy New Year!