Tuesday, 5 July 2011

mind over matter

When I wrote The Colour of Money earlier this year, I neglected to provide any information on the origin of the word, mainly to avoid going off at a tangent. It is derived from the Latin word moneta, which was, in Roman times, a place where coins were struck. The English word ‘mint’ comes from the same source.

But how did a Roman mint come to be called a moneta? The explanation begins with the Latin verb monere, ‘to warn’. It turns out that facilities for minting coins were always located in a temple dedicated to Juno, a goddess whose alternative title was moneta, ‘lady who warns’. So where did this slightly odd sobriquet come from? This is the explanation provided by Cicero:
…on the occasion of an earthquake, a voice came from the Temple of Juno on the Capitol warning the people to purify themselves with the sacrifice of a pig.
It should be taken into account that early Roman copper coins frequently bore the likeness of a pig, so this invocation can be interpreted as an appeal for funds rather than as an exhortation to slaughter as many porkers as possible. It should also be borne in mind that the Romans used moneta to translate the name of the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, from whom we get the word ‘mnemonic’, ‘aid to memory’.

It may simply be coincidence, but the Roman lady who warns and the Greek lady who remembers have the same two consonants, ‘m’ followed by ‘n’, beginning their names. And there’s a third, Minerva, whom the Romans borrowed from the previous occupants of Italy, the Etruscans. Minerva was installed in the Roman pantheon as the equivalent of the Greek goddess Athene, who was born out of the head of Zeus and who therefore symbolized thought or wisdom. Minerva is also loosely associated with pigs, in the Roman proverb ‘A pig teaches Minerva’, which is equivalent to the modern expression ‘don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs’.

There are three other Greek ladies who play a part in this story: the three Furies, whose job it was to hunt down the breakers of taboos. One can surmise that the ancient Greeks were sensitive about mentioning these malevolent beings, because they gave them the name ‘Eumenides’, ‘well-intentioned ladies’. Notice that the m–n juxtaposition occurs here too. In this case, it is in a derivation from the Greek word menos, ‘meaning’ or ‘intention’.

So here we have four examples of female deities with names that represent types of mental activity: reminding, remembering, thinking, intending. And ‘mental’ derives from the Latin mens, ‘mind’, which is clearly cognate with menos. ‘Mind’, on the other hand, while containing the m–n juxtaposition, comes not from Latin or Greek but from the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language tree. This suggests that proto-Indo-European had a word containing m–n with a similar meaning, a conjecture that is corroborated by the existence of the Sanskrit word manas, ‘mind or spirit’.

In fact, ‘mind’ has taken on a number of subsidiary meanings. So a speaker may say ‘mind that pothole’ as a reminder, ‘I mind it well’ when they remember, or ‘I have a mind to’ when they want to communicate their intentions. However, the part of this story that is the most difficult to explain is how the descendants of speakers of proto-Indo-European, coming from a culture whose principal god was male and where descent was reckoned in the male line, came to associate the process of thinking with female deities as they fanned out across Western Asia and Europe.

Could it be that the word ‘man’, the ultimate m–n word, originally meant ‘being who thinks’ and was not gender-specific? This is an attractive theory, albeit one with no evidence to support it, although this scarcely matters when a quick look around the modern world suggests that the definition no longer applies anyway.


  1. Very interesting, had never thought of that! I do enjoy languages and derivations. Your point about female gods is very interesting; for such a male-dominated society, there are an awful lot of hot-headed or wise or powerful female gods! Perhaps it harks back to more primitive worship of the female figure for the power of childbirth? Interesting, I shall endeavour to ask some lecturers at University next semester!

  2. Dennis: I'd need to know much more about philology to make a meaningful comment. Our word "man" is obviously straight from the German; the two Latin words "vir" and "homo" are clearly something else. We suffer from having just a single word indicating both "male" and "human species", to the great annoyance of feminists!

  3. I enjoyed the wordplay and speculations and how you weaved such an interesting conclusion. The comment of non-application in the modern world was funny.

    Of course, I'm impressed with the scope of your knowledge on just this one subject.

    I find your posts both fascinating and a learning tool.

    I will be following your blog...

  4. Fascinating stuff. A 'being who thinks' sounds like a very reasonable meaning for the word man. It is what distinguishes us from animals after all. The fact that we used the word mankind to mean humankind (until it became politically incorrect) also indicates that the word originally may not have had the gender designation it presently does.

  5. @Dennis......
    Its really fascinating to see how Ancient Greek Mythology is related to human mind and its thinking. Definitely a piece worth reading proving so much erudition.
    Will be following ur blog now. Keep up the good work


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