From ancient Greece through the American Revolution to the beginning of the American Civil War

Based on the Greek verb sassein (also sattein) that meant ‘to arm, to pack,’ the noun sagma (with stem sagmat-) meant ‘cargo, munitions,’ and by association also the ‘packsaddle’ used to transport cargo. The Romans, always great importers from Greece, packed sagma over into Latin with the sense ‘packsaddle.’ Spanish ultimately altered that to salma, which took on the specific sense of ‘a ton’ (sorry, pack animals). Latin sagma also passed through Hispanic Arabic and Mozárabe to become Spanish enjalma, which retains the ‘packsaddle’ sense that salma also once had but lost.

From sagma Late Latin created the adjective sagmārius ‘pertaining to a packsaddle or packhorse.’ That evolved in Spanish to somera, with a shift in meaning to ‘cada una de las dos piezas fuertes de madera en que se apoya todo el juego de la máquina antigua de imprimir’ [each of the two heavy wooden beams that supported the entire apparatus of an ancient printing press’]. The change in meaning was a metaphorical one, with the two timbers doing the sort of holding up of weight that a beast of burden does.

Most English speakers will be surprised to learn that in addition to the summer that’s a season there’s another summer that means, in the definitions of the American Heritage Dictionary: ‘a heavy horizontal timber that serves as a supporting beam, especially for the floor above; a lintel; a large, heavy stone usually set on the top of a column or pilaster to support an arch or lintel.’ This less-well-known summer came into English from sumer, the Anglo-Norman development of the *saumārius that Vulgar Latin had created from sagmārius.

In another line of development, Vulgar Latin *saumārius became Old French sommier ‘beast of burden.’ By metaphorical extension to something inanimate, the primary meaning in modern French has become ‘box spring; base of a bed.’ Spanish borrowed the word, along with those meanings, as somier. Old French sommier also gave rise to the alternate form *sommerier, which in turn led to the altered sommelier that meant ‘officer in charge of provisions, pack-animal driver.’ Over time the meaning shifted to something a bit more exalted; the Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines it as ‘a waiter, as in a club or restaurant, who is in charge of wines.’ That’s the sense in which English has borrowed the French word. Spanish borrowed it too, in the form sumiller, which could also mean ‘Jefe o superior en algunas oficinas y ministerios de palacio.’

In addition to *saumārius, Vulgar Latin created the longer *saumatārius; it evolved to the Old French sometier that meant ‘driver of a packhorse.’ Middle English carried that over as sumpter. Eventually the noun added the sense given in the 1828 version of Noah Webster’s dictionary: ‘a horse that carries clothes or furniture; a baggage-horse; usually called a pack-horse.’ Earlier, though, in the way that words for occupations like fisher, brewer, carpenter, hunter, and farmer became family names, so did sumpter. In the alternate spelling Sumter, the name came down to Thomas Sumter of South Carolina, who rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Revolutionary War. He it was for whom the American military named Fort Sumter, which in 1861 saw the first battle in the American Civil War.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim Davis
    Aug 19, 2017 @ 12:16:55

    After reading back over your post concerning
    the connection between our current word
    RANCH and French ARRANGER, I remembered
    hearing owners of big pieces of land in western America refer to their “SPREADS”.


  2. shoreacres
    Aug 28, 2017 @ 20:20:47

    I’m not sure you could have added much more to this linguistic packsaddle. I am sending the post on to a friend in Charleston SC who’s a great fan of words and of history, because of that flourish at the end. The journey to Fort Sumter will delight her.

    I did wonder about the Sumerians, and how their name came to be. Apparently the Akkadians were responsible, and the Sumerians aren’t at all connected to the Anglo-Norman sumer (or vice-versa, actually, since the Akkadians and Sumerians pre-dated the Anglo-Normans by some millennia).

    All of that looking introduced me to quinquiliteral roots. In the midst of this page, I was delighted to find this example: “In Amharic, there is a very small set of verbs which are conjugated as quinquiliteral roots. One example is wäšänäffärä : ‘rain fell with a strong wind’.”

    That intrigued me, because it sounds like a description of a hurricane. But Amharic is a language of Ethiopia: a country I’ve never associated with hurricanes. However, when I went looking, I found that NASA has been studying the genesis of hurricanes like Isabel, which was born in the eastern highlands of Ethiopia. It seems that winds over the Gulf of Aden interact with the highlands, and at least some of the storms that are generated end up in our neighborhoods.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Aug 30, 2017 @ 08:26:43

      I’m familiar with the triliteral roots of Hebrew and am aware of some words with four consonants. The only Hebrew word I know with five consonants is melafafon, which means cucumber. I always found it a funny word and one in which it’s hard for me to keep all the consonants in the right order. The plural is melafafonim, with six consonants.

      I hope your SC friend enjoys the etymology turned American history.


  3. shoreacres
    Aug 28, 2017 @ 20:34:52

    ps: the NWS has been posting English and Spanish warnings on the same page, and now I know the meaning of Aviso de Tormenta Severa. I presume Spanish tormenta and English torment are related — is that so?


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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