At the Wording Desk

Bill Casselman

Increase your understanding of English by learning the origin of words like amusement & "the Muses"

A detail from “Mount Parnassus” by Andrea Mantegna, oil on canvas, CE 1506, Musée du Louvre, Paris. At the left, Orpheus plucks his lyre, while the Nine Muses dance sportively. At the right, Pegasus, a rather poofty flying horse gazes — perhaps too fondly — at Hermes, herald of the gods, whom the Romans knew as Mercury, wearing his winged hat or petasus and on his swift feet Mantegna's version of the talaria or winged sandals. Hermes also carries the caduceus, the herald's wand, signifying a messenger who comes in peace, a device later adopted by doctors.

The Origin of Amuse is Not Amusing!
The English verb ‘to amuse’ came into common use after Shakespeare. Its original sense was entirely negative, namely, ‘to gaze stunned at something.’ It is perhaps from French à ‘to, at’ + muser ‘to stare stupidly.’ Maybe amuse is a direct borrowing from the Italian verb amusare ? But to muse or muser was in use in the earliest French with a pejorative meaning, for example from CE 1086 the adjective musart ‘absent-minded, foolish.’ -Art or -ard was an active pejorative agent suffix in older French. Thus muse is originally descriptive of a gaping, staring look; likewise muser had the Anglo-Norman sense ‘to gape, stare, wonder, marvel.’

               An ancient Greek seven-stringed lyre with its

               sounding board consisting of a tortoise shell

A Misguided Seeking of Novelty
In a desperate attempt to be innovative — even when the abandonment of etymological reason results — the Oxford English Dictionary has taken to manufacturing, quite out of the vaporous ether, word roots that never existed. Being in need of a primitive French noun, the OED etymologist has sat up all night knitting a new word *mus, an unattested form (philological gobbledygook that means ‘never existed’). States the OED, in an utter delirium of neological frenzy, that this wee root means ‘the snout of an animal.’

What has happened is that the OED, without acknowledging the theft, has “borrowed” this etymological suggestion from Earlier French and Italian amateur wordsmiths who first posited this supposititious flapdoodle, based on the fact that there is an early Italian word, muso that means ‘the snout of an animal.” There is also still in modern French the common word for muzzle, snout or nose of an animal le museau. Thus, according to this putative origin, if you “mused”, you sat dumbfounded looking like a stupid animal. One must remember, as certain frantic dictionary-rifflers apparently cannot, the present existence of a form like museau does not automatically imply that a preceding form, *mus, ever existed.

μοῦσα = muse
All that bother! When a perfectly traceable origin of to amuse leads ultimately through early French and Latin back to ancient Greek where the nine muses were the tutelary goddesses of the arts, from mousa a Greek word that meant ‘song’ and ‘the arts’ and even ‘music,’ often in its Greek plural form mousai. That Greek form may be an Attic reflex of an earlier Proto-Indo-European root *men ‘thought, mind’ and thus be cognate with Latin mens, mentis ‘mind, brain’ and with Greek menos ‘spirit’ and with Greek mnasthai ‘to remember’ and with Sanskrit manas ‘mind’ and Sanskrit manyate ‘he thinks.’
More Amusement
The ‘idle’ semantic hue in the meaning of the word amusement was helped by early senses of ‘to muse.’ In Anglo-Norman and Old French muser meant ‘to waste time in idle thought.’ We still hear it in English in bad poetry: “Idly sat he, musing by the river’s flow.” In 1889, Robert Louis Stevenson in his novel The Master of Ballantrae wrote of a listening person: “He would fall into a deep muse over our accounts.”

A rosy-fleshed Muse lips a slender flute, playing for obese putti in this rococo delight by François Boucher (1703-1770).

Music in the Museum
Two common English words derived from Greek adjectives based on mousa: museum and music.

Museum is a direct borrowing from classical Latin where it meant as the OED aptly defines it “a place holy to the Muses, a building set apart for study, especially the institute for philosophy and research at Alexandria.” Latin in turn borrowed the word from ancient Greek μουσεῖον ‘haunt of the Muses’ or ‘art school.’

All the languages of Europe and some other tongues adopted the term: French musée, Italian museo, Portuguese museu, Spanish museo, Dutch museum, German Museum, Swedish museum, Russian (through French) музей.

Music began as a Greek adjective μυσικός ‘of or pertaining to anything to do with the Nine Muses.’ Then, as a noun, it came to mean a person devoted to or composing poetry sung to music, a lyric poet, and then the musician who played the music that accompanied the poetry. Sometimes the lyric poet himself played the lyre.

       One of the Muses plucks a kithara on a Greek vase.

 We conclude with an old Russian adage “When the cannons are silent, the muses are heard.” What does that proverb mean? Simple. A peaceable kingdom is the best seed-bed of art.

Bill Casselman, June 14, 2017

Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman