The etymological folds of “diplomacy”

With North Korea accelerating its nuclear weaponry and the threat of US military action looming, diplomacy feels more urgent than ever. Etymology may be wishful thinking, but let’s examine the origins of the diplomacy—so we won’t be as extinct as the diplodocus.

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Double plates used for military diplomas in ancient Rome (Brigham Young University)

From document to dinosaurs

Diplomacy, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, is the “management of international relations by negotiation.” The dictionary first records the word in the thick of the French Revolution—1796—in the letters of Irish-born statesmen and political theorist, Edmund Burke, who was rendering the French diplomatie.

The older term is diplomatic, found in 1711 characterizing “official or original documents.” Some of the early documents so described concerned international relations, which shifted diplomatic from paper-craft to statecraft.

Diplomatic is from the modern Latin diplomaticus, its adjective form for diploma, a “charter” or “license.” For the ancient Romans, diplomas were passports, stamped out on double metal plates and stitched together. The English diploma, evidenced as early as 1645 for an “official document” or “state paper,” began narrowing to its university degree sense over the course of the latter half of the 17th century.

Those double metal plates are a clue to the deeper origins of diploma. Latin took diploma from the Greek δίπλωμα (diploma), a “doubling,” referring to a document folded over. The basic root is διπλόος (diploos), “double.” In On the Way to Diplomacy, professor Costas M. Constantinou explains this doubleness: “Etymologically, [diploma] is derived from the ancient Greek verb diploun (to double) joined together and folded (diplono). In the first instance, such ancient diplomas written on parchment or papyrus were handed over to heralds carried as evidence of their status and authority.”

The first part of diploos, di-, goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *dwo-, meaning and source of the English “two.” The second part, ploos, ultimately comes from *pel-, meaning and source of “fold.” That makes the Greek diploos literally “twofold.” Double is simply Latin’s version (duplus).

The Greek diploos also shows up in diploid, a scientific term for a cell or nucleus that has two complete sets of chromosomes—for humans, that’s 46. It also appears in diplodocus, a late Jurassic sauropod whose neck along was around 21 feet long. Its name, coined by US paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh in 1878, means “double beam” for the structure of certain bones in its tails.    

At the UN these days, North Korea isn’t the elephant in the room—it’s more like the diplodocus.

m ∫ r ∫

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