According to the home page of American Mensa, “Mensa is an international society whose only qualification for membership is a score in the top 2 percent of the general population on a standardized intelligence test. The word mensa means ‘table’ in Latin; similarly, mens means ‘mind’ and mensis means ‘month. The name ‘Mensa’ is reminiscent of ‘mind, table, month,’ which suggests a monthly meeting of great minds around a table.”
Latin mensa did indeed mean ‘table,’ and the Romans used the word for various types of tables and table-like objects. According to Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary, a mensa could be ‘a dining table; a market stand for meat or vegetables; a money-changer’s counter; a butcher’s table; a gaming-table; the long, flat part of a catapult; a stand or platform on which slaves were exhibited for sale.’ By extension, a mensa could even be something that, while not itself a table, was associated with one: ‘food, a meal, a course of a meal.’ In the Nihil Novum sub Sole, or Nothing New Under the Sun category, I’ll add that a couple of minutes ago I walked into a room where a television was on; I was just in time to hear a commercial for a furniture store that called a sale of tables a “dining event.”
As the Latin spoken in the Iberian Peninsula evolved to Spanish, mensa lost its nasal consonant and became mesa. The word has remained a versatile one: the Diccionario de la lengua española gives 14 definitions, plus a slew of phrases and idioms in which mesa appears. One of the definitions is a ‘terreno elevado y llano, de gran extensión, rodeado de valles o barrancos,’ and that’s the one that applies to mesa as English has borowed the word.
As a second item in the Nothing New Under the Sun category, I’ll add that the Mensa folks, with their alliterative mensa, mens, and mensis, were anticipated by Mrs. Evelyn Raymond, she of Mixed Pickles “fame,” whose book Monica the Mesa Maiden was published in 1892.
That being hard to top, I’ll table any further discussion of mesa for today.
© 2010 Steven Schwartzman