Mmegi Blogs :: The etymology of secrecy and openness (Part 2)
Last Updated
Friday 23 February 2018, 16:00 pm.
The etymology of secrecy and openness (Part 2)

As promised last week, we close our mini-series by looking at more terms that connote ‘secrecy’ – including the very interesting etymology of ‘secret’ itself – as well as a few antonyms suggesting ‘openness’. But before we get into that, it is worthwhile to further treat the ancient etymology of ‘sly’ and show its commonality with the Setswana term serai (dangerous).
By L M Leteane Fri 22 Apr 2016, 10:11 am (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: The etymology of secrecy and openness (Part 2)

The first thing we will notice, here, is the l to r sound-change when we compare the English and Setswana versions of the term – otherwise they pronounce exactly the same. This sound-change is linguistically well-known and examples of it are numerous (we will encounter some in this article).

 The second thing to note is that it seems incongruous to associate ‘sly’ – which is understood to mean ‘clever, wily, ingenious’ – with ‘serai’ (dangerous)…but I noted that the Indo-European etymology of ‘sly’ emanates from the Scandinavian/Icelandic term slægur, which relates to the Afrikaans (i.e. Dutch) term sleg (dangerous). In turn, slæg (borrowed in Setswana as selaga) fundamentally connotes ‘a trap’ but has also come to mean ‘a device for slaughtering’ – which, effectively, is what a trap is. So, beforehand, a sly person was viewed as one who arranged cunning traps, mostly for slaughter, and was thus dangerous.

A trap, of course, has to ingenious or it will not work. It has to be either well-hidden so that one walks into it unsuspectingly, or it has to lure someone or something to it. Thus, many traps for animals entail bait.

To ‘lure’ or ‘bait’ in Setswana is ‘raela’ (rai-ela in proto-terms), and the noun or perfect tense of rai is thai. We thus have the variant ‘thai-sa’ (‘set up a trap’). As for bobi, although we noted last week that it means ‘weave’ – and thus a spider’s web (bobi in Setswana) is literally ‘a woven trap, a booby trap’ – the term bobi also connotes ‘a devious device one does not see’. Thus, ‘to put bobi over the eyes of someone’ (a Setswana expression) is, in English, ‘to pull the wool over someone’s eyes’. ‘Wool’, is indeed a weaving/ knitting item – and for it to work as a trap, one must not detect it.

We have thus far learnt that the l to r or r to l linguistic sound-change can occur between languages and dialects or within a language and dialect. Another good example of this is the term ‘secret’ itself. The primordial, universal proto-term, I have discerned, is se-kelet. In Indo-European, se-kelet came to mean ‘that which is covered, hidden, concealed’ – thus ‘skeleton’ is ‘the structural part of the body that is hidden [beneath flesh]’ – whereas in Bantu languages keleta, I have determined, emanates from a proto-term meaning ‘deplete, expose, make bare’.

The key word, of course is kele. As such, a ‘skull’ (se-kele) was a head depleted of hair.

Many people would tend to think that se-kere (scissors) – i.e. se-kele with an l/r sound-change – is a borrowed term. On the contrary, it is a primordial Setswana term meaning ‘that which depletes’.

In fact, ‘scissor’ itself emanates from the Latin term sicca, which in turn relates to sega (cut).


Fundamentally, kereta sound-changed to ‘karata’ (now spelt kgaratha/kgaratlha), which means ‘deplete’. Yet ‘se-kereti’ (‘that which is bare or exposed’) appears is, puzzlingly, the opposite of ‘secret’ (‘that which is hidden or concealed’)…until we realise that se-kerete was actually an active phrase meaning ‘do not expose’, i.e. referring to ‘that which should not be exposed’! But even in cases where ‘se’ (‘do not’) is absent and yet a term has come to mean the opposite of its initial meaning, it is because the term evolved along a semantic path similar to that of the Sotho-Tswana term ‘bapala’. In Setswana it means ‘acquire in a business-like fashion’ whereas in Sesotho it means ‘play or act unproductively’.

 Incidentally, when an area is depleted of wild grass, it becomes a bare pathway where one can easily ‘tread’ (gata in Setswana). A ‘[bare] skull’ is thus le-gata in Setswana. In Greek, we thus have kull-vari (Calvary: the skull-valley, or ‘valley of skulls’) which in Hebrew (and Setswana) is Golo-gata (‘Golgotha’: ‘the region of skulls’). Now, another term for ‘a bare pathway’ is ‘patelo’ (now spelt patlelo) and the key word is pata. Again, puzzlingly, pata means ‘hide’ which seems incongruous when juxtaposed with the connotation of ‘bare’.

Indeed, ‘pate’ also means ‘bare skull’! So, since pata, in Greek, does indeed mean ‘hide’ (for example, apo-kalypte, the root of the ‘apocalypse’ consists of apo (‘uncover’ in the Setswana)) and kalypte:  ka (ga) + le + pato (‘that which is hidden’), thus meaning ‘uncover that which is hidden’ i.e. ‘reveal’), why does it seem to also mean ‘bare, exposed’? Indeed, ‘patent’ means ‘obviated’.

The semantic path is now somewhat opaque, but I blame the proto-term ‘pa!’ which connotes ‘sudden exposure’ and ‘ta!’ which connotes a strike.

The Latin term vide is another proto-term that relates to fithe (‘hidden’, as in fithegile). We can thus understand that a-vide (evide(nt)) meant ‘not hidden’, i.e. visible.

Later, vide itself came to mean ‘see’, and no longer connotes ‘unable to be seen’. In similar vein, the Setswana term a-para (cover, dress up), we can discern, means, primordially, ‘not made broad’ i.e. not ‘not exposed, not broadcast’ which fits well with ‘apparel’ ( a dress, a cover)…but ‘apparent’ connotes exactly the opposite!

Rather less problematic is the term ‘open’. ‘Pen’ means ‘contain, shut up, restrain’ and a pen is an enclosure. A ‘penalty’, originally, was thus punishment whereby one is ‘contained, imprisoned’ – i.e. put in a pen.

Pen-ologa, in Setswana, means ‘overflowing, not able to be contained’, so the key term ‘pen’ is evidently common here.

We can thus surmise that ‘open’ was primordially a-pena, i.e. ‘not closed up’. Another one is a–phiri (‘not secret’) which is the key term in ‘appear’ i.e. ‘become exposed, visible’. Semantics in language is indeed a convoluted but interesting path.

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