Book that book, Danno.

Dear Word Detective:  I have been reading about the meaning of the word “policeman” in a book, which says that it originated in “polis” meaning “city,” and therefore “policeman” means “man of the city.” Do you have any idea where the word “politician” comes from? I assume it also derives from “polis,” but the ending isn’t the same and I assume this means it has a different meaning. — Michelle.

Wow. That book really says that “policeman” means “man of the city”? That’s pretty seriously not true. It’s also an instance of what I’d call the Lego School of Linguistic Analysis, the belief that each part of a word has a particular meaning, usually firmly fixed, and that by snapping the bits apart the intrepid explorer can figure out what the word “truly means.”

Let’s just say that language doesn’t work that way, to put it mildly. While words often are built from roots with particular meanings to which prefixes, suffixes and other bits are added, the process usually takes centuries, the meaning almost always shifts along the way, and the results often have only a tangential connection to the original “meanings” of the constituent parts (and in the case of prefixes and suffixes, those “meanings” are notoriously vague in the first place). The “take it apart” approach also often leads to what is known as the “etymological fallacy,” the belief that if you can determine the “original meaning” of a word, you have found its “true” meaning. Thus, for example, many otherwise sane people object to the use of “decimate” to mean “severely reduce, damage or destroy” because the original word meant “kill one of every ten soldiers” (the method the Roman army used to punish mutineers). I’m not sure why people resist language change so fiercely, but, fortunately, language isn’t listening, and “decimate” in its modern sense is a very useful word.

Several years ago I received a question that also dealt with the word “politician,” in that case asking about the story that “politics” came from “poli,”supposedly meaning “many” (it doesn’t) plus “tics,” supposedly meaning “ticks,” i.e., “bloodsucking insects” (wrong again). As a joke that’s not bad, but as etymology, fuhgeddaboudit. The actual root of “politics” is indeed the Greek “polis,” meaning “city.” This produced the Greek “polites,” meaning “citizen,” which in turn produced “politikos,” meaning “regarding citizens or matters of state.” In Latin, the Greek “politikos” became “polticus,” which eventually gave us “politics,” “political,” and, with the suffix “ian” indicating action or agency, “politician” for a person whose jobs involves affairs of government or civil administration. So “politics” is simply the system of governing a society, and a “politician” is someone who works in that apparatus.

Our English word “police” was imported from the Middle French branch of the “polis” family tree, where “police” meant essentially the same thing as our modern English word “policy” in the sense of “the conduct of good government.” By the 16th century, our English “police” had come to mean “the organizing or governing body of a community,” but it wasn’t until the 18th century that “police” came to mean a specific department or agency devoted to maintaining public safety and law and order. The use of “police” as a verb meaning “to keep a place, especially a military base, clean and orderly” arose in the 19th century and harks back to the now-obsolete use of “police” to mean simply “maintain good governance.”

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