The Compulsive Copyeditor

August 14, 2010

Evil Twin of the Week

Filed under: etymology,history of English,language degenerating — amba12 @ 9:23 am

We’ve talked about people who “pour” over manuscripts, “horde” their possessions and “tow” the line.  Well, they also “reign in” their emotions.  AARRRRGGGHHH!!!  I’m not reining mine in!

It’s an understandable case of mistaken identity, I guess.  You could certainly “reign over” your emotions, in the sense of “govern,” “rule,” “control.”  And a “rein” is used to govern, rule, control a horse, so I wondered if they had a common root that would stretch to justify the misuse.  Nope.  I consulted the trusty Online Etymology Dictionary (if you don’t know it yet, you should):

reign (n.) early 13c., “kingdom,” from O.Fr. reigne, from L. regnum “kingship, dominion, rule, realm,” related to regere (see regal). Meaning “period of rule” first recorded mid-14c. The verb, meaning “to hold or exercise sovereign power,” is attested from late 13c., from O.Fr. regner, from L. regnare, from regnum.
rein (n.) c.1300, “strap fastened to a bridle,” from O.Fr. rene, probably from V.L. *retina “a bond, check,” back-formation from L. retinere “hold back” (see retain). The verb is c.1300, from the noun. Figurative extension “put a check on” first recorded 1588.

Wait a minute — retina??  OED (were those initials intentional?) doesn’t comment on it, but:

retain late 14c., from O.Fr. retenir, from L. retinere “hold back,” from re– “back” + tenere “to hold” (see tenet). Meaning “keep (another) attached to one’s person, keep in service” is from mid-15c.; specifically of lawyers from 1540s.
retina late 14c., from M.L. retina, probably from V.L. (tunica) *retina, lit. “net-like tunic,” on resemblance to the network of blood vessels at the back of the eye, and ult. from L. rete “net.” The V.L. phrase may be Gerard of Cremona’s 12c. translation of Arabic (tabaqa) sabakiva “netlike layer,” itself a translation of Gk. amphiblestroeides (khiton).
It’s hard to tell if the Latin rete, net, is related to re-tenere, to hold back, but it seems logical.  Think of a fishing net stretched across a stream to hold back salmon.  Lawyers, though?  Eyes?  How far afield we’re led by language’s tangled web!  Yet every far-flung excursion circles back to the same handful of basic, kinesthetic roots.  To grasp, to hold, hold over, hold back.  Rule, regulate, restrain, retain, rein — maybe this mistake, at least, conceals an insight.

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