A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.
How useful is an appendix? That all depends on which meaning of appendix you have in mind. The oldest definition, dating back to the 1540s, is the supplementary material found at the end of a book and comes from the Latin appendere, meaning “to cause to hang from something.” (Interestingly, a necklace pendant has the same word origin.) Over time, appendix was used in other contexts to refer to any part that depends upon a larger body. By 1610, appendix was used in anatomy to refer to outgrowths of internal organs, especially the organ that we know simply as our appendix today. This small organ has no known function in present-day humans, though it may have played a role in aiding our ancestors’ digestion. Now we hardly pay attention to this small, extra pouch attached to our large intestine, unless of course we get a painful case of appendicitis, and it has to be removed. If you lose this useless organ, chances are you would miss it far less than the supplementary material found at the end of certain books on your shelves, should that magically disappear.
“Idleness is an appendix to nobility.”
—Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1838)
“The modern king has become a vermiform appendix—useless when quiet, when obtrusive in danger of removal.”
—Austin O’Malley (United Irish leader, 1760-1854), Keystones of Thought (published 1914)
“Progress. The process whereby the human race has got rid of whiskers, the vermiform appendix and God.”
—Henry Louis Mencken, A Book of Burlesques (1920)
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