Thursday, October 1, 2009

Arpents, Voltaire And Etymology

Hon. D.T. Jewett and George C. Miller yesterday took possession of several arpents of ground on Grand avenue, including the Base Ball Park, decided by the Supreme Court, recently, to belong to the latter, in the suit of Miller vs. the Dunn heirs.
-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 7, 1876

The land upon which the Grand Avenue Grounds was built was leased by August Solari and, during this era, was never owned by the ball club. In 1876, it appears that the land was owned by Jewett and Miller.

Anyway, my real point is that I'm rather fond of the word arpent. I find it to be a vastly superior word to acre and think it a shame that it's fallen out of use as a way to measure land. For a French word with a supposedly Latin origin, it has a rather Germanic/Anglo-Saxon guttural quality to it. Ich habe zwei arpent. Oddly, while the French arpent sounds Germanic, the Germanic acre (or acker) actually sounds French to me.

The arpent had been used in St. Louis as a measurement of land dating back to its days as a French colony. Almost a century after St. Louis was incorporated into the United States, it was still in common usage. When it was replaced by the acre, I couldn't say.

The best use of the word arpent in a sentence was by Voltaire who, writing about the French colonies in Canada, described the Great White North as "quelques arpents de neige" or "a few acres of snow." That's funny in and of itself but when you take into account the Canadian inferiority complex it becomes absolutely brilliant.

Now supposedly the word arpent derives from the late Latin word arepennis but I couldn't find the word in my Latin dictionary or in any online Latin dictionary. The closest word I could find was area, meaning an open space, or the root -arium, denoting a place. There was a town called Arpinium, which was the birthplace of Cicero, and Arpinius was an adjective meaning of Arpinium. I also looked at other variations of the word such as arpen or arpine but still couldn't find a Latin origin.

Finally, I found a book entitled The Regional Diversification of Latin, 200 BC-AD 600, which was written by James Noel Adams and published in 2007. Adams argues that Latin was regionally diverse and that there were numerous Latin dialects. This goes against the prevailing theory that Latin lacked dialects and was homogeneous throughout the classical world. Adams identifies arepennis as a Celtic term incorporated into Latin by the Gauls and the Britons.

Therefore, it can be argued that arpent is not of Latin but Celtic origin and was incorporated into Latin and later French during the early Medieval period. I think that would explain the rather Germanic quality of the word.

And I really did just spend several hours of my day off of work looking into the etymology of the word arpent when I should have been writing about 19th century baseball. No one can procrastinate like I can. Let's just consider this a small tribute to William Safire, who passed away the other day.

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