Friday, October 26, 2018

Secret, secretary

One more from Ammon Shea:

I’m constantly finding that the former meaning of a word differs significantly from how I know it today. When I learned that secretary meant “one privy to a secret” during the fourteenth century I was utterly delighted. And then almost immediately I began scolding myself for not having realized such an obvious precedent, and thought that I should feel no excitement at discovering something that in hindsight seems so obvious. But it is exciting to make these little discoveries about the language, and it shouldn’t matter at all if they are obvious to someone else.

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (New York: Penguin, 2008).
The earliest Oxford English Dictionary definition of secretary: “one who is entrusted with private or secret matters; a confidant; one privy to a secret.” Secretary comes into English from medieval Latin: “sēcrētārius a secretary, notary, scribe, etc., a title applied to various confidential officers (properly an adj.).”

Is the secret of secretary already obvious to you? It wasn’t to me. I told my mom, who worked as an executive secretary in the 1950s, about it: she didn’t know either.

[Peanuts, October 29, 1971. Peanuts past is Peanuts present.]

Related reading
All OCA dictionary posts (Pinboard)
Words of the day: apricity, apricot
A home entertainment system

[“One privy to a secret”: why the OED italicizes to must remain a secret.]

comments: 5

Sean said...

The word "rumor" falls into this category for me, as in "a soft low indistinct sound."

"While walking in the forest I heard the rumor of running water."

Michael Leddy said...

That one’s new to me. You would like another OED word in this book: psithurism, or psithurisma: “whispering; a whispering noise.” Shea defines it as “the whispering of leaves moved by the wind,” though the OED definition is much more general.

Andy Eng said...

One of my favorite lines from The Day The Earth Stood Still is when Bobby is showing Klaatu around Washington, D.C. and tells him that his mother works at the Department of Commerce. "She's a secretary. They have a man they call the Secretary, but he isn't at all. My mother's a REAL secretary."

Sean said...

I should have mentioned that the definition I quoted comes from MW.

Michael Leddy said...

@Andy, “A REAL secretary”: of course. I know from my life as a teacher that secretaries are the people who keep the ship on course, the lamps trimmed and burning, whatever metaphor fits.

@Sean, thanks for footnoting the definition.