Last week’s post covered a steaming heap of unlikely words that shared a common root meaning to speak. In an attempt for balance, I took a look at the etymologies of silence & quiet for this week’s post, but came away uninspired. The word mute is another matter.
Mute made its way into English in the 1300s through Old French & Latin from Greek. Initially, mute meant pretty much what it mostly means today – silent. By the 1570s mute picked up the meaning stage actor engaging in pantomime. By 1811 a mute could be applied to a stringed instrument & by 1841 a mute could be used on horns.
The Greek source for mute was myein, to be shut, & myein has some intriguing progeny.
One branch of the myein tree grew like this:
It started way back in Greek as myein, to be shut.
Next, it became mystes, one who has been initiated (possibly referring to having been previously shut out).
From there it became mysteria, a secret rite or doctrine.
Next, it grew to be mysterium, secret worship or secret thing.
And from there it became mistere, secret or hidden meaning.
Then (in the early 1300s) it became mystery, meaning religious truth via divine revelation. These days most dictionaries offer about a dozen meanings for mystery, generally starting off with something like an event that baffles or eludes the understanding.
Another mysterious branch of the myein tree grew in this fashion:
Of course, we start with myein, to be shut.
Next comes myops, which literally meant close the eyes, but came to mean near-sighted.
By 1727, we have the word myopia.
Mute is often confused with a word that started out as a Proto-Germanic word meaning assembly or council (ga-motan) It next moved into Old English as gemot, meaning meeting. One must assume Old English meetings were contentious, as the next Old English word on this tree was moot, to debate. By the 1530s, moot picked up the adjectival meaning debatable or discussion of a hypothetical law case.
So from that old Greek word myein we ended up with mute, myopia & mystery, but not moot.
I’m hoping you’ve got something to say about all this. If so, just click on the word “comments” below & enter your comment.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, 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.