A while ago my loving wife asked about the source of the word doxology. Before whipping out my trusty dictionary, the in-brain-search yielded possible connections to paradox & heterodox. But the in-brain-search would never have come up with a connection to the word decent. And that’s one of the things I find intriguing about etymologies. So often, a good word history includes a surprise.
Doxology showed up in English in the 1640s, meaning a hymn of praise. The first bit of the word came from the Greek word doxa, meaning glory, praise, or opinion. Doxa is a later form of the Greek word dokein, meaning to appear, seem, or think. I’d love to know the circumstances that caused an association between opinion & praise or glory.
A heterodox is something not in accordance with established doctrine, which makes perfect sense, since its two word parts add up to mean the other opinion. Heterodox came to English in the 1630s.
The word paradox arrived in English in the 1530s. In this case, para- meant contrary, so a paradox is something contrary to what one might expect.
A word that should have popped up in my in-brain-search is orthodox, which came from the Greek word orthodoxos, which originally meant, having the right opinion. Since ortho- means right, true, or straight, this original meaning shouldn’t surprise us. Today, the word orthodox is most often used to mean traditional.
All the doxa-related words above came through Greek from the Proto-Indo-European root dek, meaning to greet or be suitable. But when the Latin-speakers got hold of dek, it became decere, to be fitting or suitable. This Latin word gave birth in the 1530s to the English word decent, which initially meant proper to one’s rank or station, then went on to add these meanings:
By 1600, good taste;
By 1712, satisfying;
About that same time, tolerable;
By 1902, kind or pleasant; &
By 1949 the backstage question “Are you decent?” came to mean “Are you dressed?”
And from the “what is the world coming to?” department, the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes the 1814 birth of the word decentish. Who knew?
If you’ve got any comments (decent or indecent) regarding all this, please do so in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster & the OED
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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