The Word Snooper Feels Temptation

While Ms. Khan texted her boss I stared out the atrium window. The sun was beating down like the overhead bulb in an interrogation room. I suddenly had an odd craving for ice cream tempura.

“Mrs. A—uh, my employer just made us an offer: a working lunch at Pinot.”

“Deal. Just a second, though. I’ve got an unsolved case here.” I scooped up C.J. Chan/De Sica’s eyeglass case as we made our way to the escalator. At the first floor I passed it across the counter to the guard who deposited it in the Lost and Found box along with other cases, glasses, pens, magnifiers, wallets, phones, notebooks and other flotsam, jetsam and detritus of the lives of writers, scholars and assorted hangers-on who haunt the Central Library.

We got a patio table overlooking the gardens outside the library. The unseasonably warm weather brought a few purple jacaranda blossoms and a clutch of bankers and beggars to the garden. I ordered the mussels appetizer and striped bass entrée. It was the boss lady’s nickel. Ms. Khan had the eighteen-dollar burger.

“So,” said Ms. Khan between bites, “My employer wants to know whether tempt, attempt and contempt are related to all the temp- words, from temper to tempura.”

I pulled up the OED Online. “It’s tempting to be tenacious, but it looks like we’ve reached the end of the line. Tempt has another root; it comes from Latin temptāre, temtāre ‘to handle, touch, feel, try the strength of, put to the test, try, attempt.’

“Those were some of the early meanings of tempt in English. In a 14th century translation of the Bible, when God tempted Abraham, scholars will tell you, He wasn’t trying to lure him into evil, just testing him. The same Wycliffite Bible also uses tempt to mean ‘try, endeavor,” in other words, attempt. But look at definition II.-4.-a.:

 trans. To try to attract, to entice (a person) to do evil.”

“Wow,” said Ms. Khan. “That’s how we use it now and that’s the oldest meaning, going back to the year 1230!”

“According to the OED,” I said, “attempt comes, through Old French, from temptāre. This time the dictionary stretches the etymology further, noting that tentāre is the frequentative of tendĕre to stretch. It seems to have entered English in the 16th century with the same meaning it has now.”

“What about contempt?”

“I’ll have dessert first,” I said, waving my empty Martini glass at the waiter.

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One Response to The Word Snooper Feels Temptation

  1. Pingback: Holy Heck! Hollyhocks | Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper

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