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Peripatetic

12 Nov 2015

A pretty perfect P-word popped up on HH the other day:

Which raised this perceptively prompt post-script:

Actually, it’s the other way around. According to the OED (which labels it an “obsolete nonse-word”) the poet Robert Southey coined the word peripateticate in 1793, basing it on the much earlier fifteenth century adjective peripatetic

 

Nowadays, of course, you’re most likely to come across the word peripatetic in reference to itinerant or part-time jobs (and in particularly teaching positions) that involve moving from one location to another. But originally it was a noun: spelled with a capital P, a Peripatetic is a follower or advocate of the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. So how the devil are these two meanings connected?

 

Etymologically, peripatetic brings together two Greek roots: peri, meaning “around” or “about” (as in perimeter and periphery), and pateo, a Greek verb meaning “to walk”, “tread”, or “trample” (which is a distant relative of the word path). So peripatetic literally means “walking around,” and hence peripateticate means “to walk about on foot”.

 

As for Aristotle, well, if there’s one thing he liked it was a good old cogitate. And what better to do while you’re quietly cogitating to yourself than to wander around a beautiful classical Greek garden, like that at Aristotle’s Lyceum?

 

 The Lyceum: Good for cogitating. Less good if it rains. (Image credit: Visit Greece)

 

At the Lyceum—the sports-ground-cum-scholarly-gymnasium used as a meeting point and debating area—Aristotle reportedly had a habit of horbgorbling his way around the porticos, corridors, and gardens while he taught his lessons and debated with students, which earned him and his followers the nickname Peripatetikos (literally “given to walking about”). And so when the word Peripatetic first appeared in English in the mid-1400s, it referred exclusively to Aristotelian beliefs and techniques.

 

Later writers—Southey included—eventually commandeered this word, and used it in more literal senses to mean “a person who wanders”, “an itinerant peddler”, and ultimately “someone who works in various locations”. Not only that, but the plural peripatetics can been used to mean “movements”, “journeys”, or “wanderings”, and Charles Dickens being Charles Dickens, he of course had to go one better and use it in a figurative sense to mean “rambling” or “long-winded”, as he did in Our Mutual Friend in 1865.


But now it’s time to participate in a prompt peripatetication of our own. Aristotle would be pleased as punch. 

 

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