Holding Court, plus Star Wars bonus features

holding court

I get the word “courtesan” in my head sometimes, and it bops around for a while probably because it’s so easy to match the picture it conjures and the word’s morphology. A sumptuous, brocaded woman in a sumptuous, brocaded room, both ordered around by someone powerful. Just today, I thought also of “courtesy” and  “courteous”…also so clearly connected to “court” and with less ribald/exploitative connotations. Let’s check it all out!


Of course, they are right next to each other. The two most stick-outy bits of this to me are: 1) this seems to posit that there was a time when “courtesan” just straight-up overlapped with “courtier,” maybe even in the room with the Pope, and 2) that “curtsy” is of course wrapped up in all this too! For the former: this is interesting for 1934 to tell us, because current etymology has “courtesan” as coming right from French courtisane from Italian cortigiana: “prostitute,” which did of course come from “one hanging out at court,” but the point is that that’s not how WE got it–it already meant mistress/prostitute by the time we got our grubby grabby King Henry hands on it. Which, while gross in the way that all exploitation is gross, is at least better than the possibility playing in my mind, which was that “courtesan” somehow emerged from “courtesy,” in some icky reflection of the way the powerful often feel it’s just good manners on the part of the less powerful to do whatever the fuck (you get me) the powerful want.

But anyway, curtsy:


This wasn’t originally exclusively feminine; that it has become so is interesting to me and I wonder if there’s something phonological/imitative going on here…”curtsy” is in the same mouth-universe as itsty bitsy, teensy, etc…they all involve closed-er, front-er vowels (so, the mouth moves little and unobtrusively) than “bow,” which is what men get to do. Say them out loud, and wonder.

Anyway: I also started wondering about “court” itself, and I’m so tickled by what I learned. In the course (!!) of it, I realized that I’d been tricked by my own powers of pattern-recognition into not looking too deeply into “court”-words before; since French is the language I know second-best, and because French third-person-singular verbs tend to end in “t”, and the French word for “run” is courir which gets conjugated to cours for “I” and “you” and court for “she,” “he,” and “it,” I’d just gone with “ok, whatever, cours+__ words and court+__ words are all from the same-ish place, and it’s something about running, and that’s where I’m leaving that.” But!


Not running, in fact totally the opposite: enclosure (the cour of “running” shows up in our “current,” and has to do with a totally different Latin root: currere). “Court” even reaches delightfully back to “co-“, which you may recall is fun in itself (as I will tell you about here and others will here), and we get this beautiful bonus about “cohort” which now seems to have etymological nods to “togetherness garden” even though you have to go back through the Roman army to get there.

click to enlarge
What I love about this is that though the connotation became connected to (royal) power, the denotation is about contained space, which…well, if you want to think about types of energy being divisible into roughly “union” (containment, nurturing, “yes”) and “separation” (boundaries, empowerment, “no”)…there’s something nicely “both/and” about all this. And it also helps me recast “courtesy” for myself as “that which is appropriate to whatever court (meaning ‘garden of mutuality’ of course) I find myself in,” rather than being an inflexible set of mores. Yay!

Now: not one but two Star Wars bonuses. While I was in C-land, I saw this guide word IMG_0136and thought “no way…”…and then here’s what I found:


Isn’t that WEIRD? A) what a terrible system, and B) that’s a lot of connections to just be random…out of all the letters, numbers, and accents, Lucas picked C, 3, and British. Hmph!

And Star Wars bonus 2: I got a question from my friend James about this:

James was not asking about whether Dooku could defeat Yoda (though, duh, NO), but about what’s up with “learnt” here (i.e, why not “learned” and is this related to “blest” appearing in some hymns rather then “blessed”?) I had some initial gut reaction about -t versions and -ed versions both being valid past tense and past participle forms but conventional usage diverging over time such that -t went with passive/adjectival constructions like “it was blest by me” or “the lesson learnt by Dooku” but, nope, not really for these two. Seems “blest” and “learnt” are just products of many -ed forms losing that last vowel sound in the 16th century…for a time, it was trendy to reflect that new pronunciation orthographically with a -t, and British writers tended to retain the -t while North Americans kept or went back to -ed. So, “blest” is kind of just archaic, but “learnt” is actually still common outside the US, so now, James, tell us if this Lego friend is from elsewhere! My gut about passive/adjectival usage and the actual historical record approach one another with “burned” and “burnt”–we use “burnt” adjectivally as in “burnt out” and “burnt orange,” and the rest of the world uses both forms fairly interchangeably.

Do you have a Star Wars question?

3 thoughts on “Holding Court, plus Star Wars bonus features

  1. Living in the land of burnt orange, I should have thought of that one! Alas, the title page has provided safe harbour for understanding. It all clicked when I read that this Lego Star Wars Sticker Book is published by Dorling Kindersley (London!), and written by Brit Shari Last http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Shari_Last. So, yes our language neighbours spelt the word in question. Bravo.


  2. A few times at the Inner Journey Retreat, we’ve watched Dangerous Beauty – about courtesans. You’d perhaps enjoy as the heroine takes back her power in the court using no less than a SWORD (masculine symbol of power!).


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