Monday, October 30, 2017

Getting Testy....

I have a tendency - annoying to some - of often wondering how certain words came into existence, and how they relate to other similar sounding words. It usually comes up as a topic of conversation when I would have been better advised to be paying attention to something else.

This problem only gets worse "across languages".  Learning rudimentary Italian really opened the flood gates on this.

Consider the Italian for headache.  It is, should you ever need to know, "mal di testa".

Mal makes perfect sense.  Malaise, malware, malfeasance, mal de mer for sea sickness.  Mal is bad.

But testa.  Hmmmm.  Not an obvious connection there.  In Italian head is "capo".  So what's the deal?

In Latin "tessera" are small bits of stone or broken pottery.  They were used to make those spectacular mosaic floors.  The term for a broken bit of pottery apparently morphed to "testa" for pot.  It must at some intermediate point have designated one that was cracked or broken.  So "mal di testa" is a pain as if your head was a ceramic vessel that had been hit hard enough to crack it!

I suppose at one time or another most of us have been there, experienced that.

So the term appears to have nothing to do with "testes" for testicle, or with testify. The connection there was that in ancient Rome when you were called upon to tell the truth in court you had to, well, by grasping the appropriate area indicate that you were putting your manly reputation on the line.  What women were supposed to do in this circumstance is unclear.

In the late Roman world where this odd tesserae/testa mutation was happening there were by coincidence (or was it?) a type of vessel called a face pot.  I have excavated a few fragments over the years.  Intact they look like this:

These guys look pretty chipper, despite being in all probability burial urns for cremations.   

A potter up in northern England has been working to recreate ancient Roman vessels, even going to the trouble to build primitive Roman era kilns in which to fire them. One of my digging pals had the chance to help on this project.  Rather a nice assortment, some look happier than others...

Recently he posted an eerie picture of one of these being fired in the kiln:

Happy Halloween!

1 comment:

Weetabix said...

"mal de testa" - I wonder if there's a relationship to calling someone touched in the head a crackpot?