Lexie Kahn, Secret Agent

After a late night watching election returns, pundits poking red and blue puzzle pieces on glowing screens invaded my dreams. A clanging phone woke me. It was Amira Khan, Ms. Big’s assistant, speaking in a near whisper. “I’m sorry; what did you say?” I asked. “Your boss wants to know if secretary is related to what?”


I suppressed a snort.

“I’m on it.” I set down the receiver. While I fired up the laptop I grabbed the cell phone and texted C.J.: “UR rite. She’s after Hillary’s job.” Wasn’t the billionaire businesswoman, who was firmly tucked into the one percent of the one-percenters, a Republican, though? Well, you never know. In her political positions the old bird could be as flexible as a preteen gymnast.

“Here we go, Ms. Khan. Secretary originally meant ‘one who is entrusted with private or secret matters; a confidant; one privy to a secret.’ By the 1400s it had our current meaning of ‘one whose office it is to write for another; specifically one who is employed to conduct or assist with correspondence, to keep records.’ And as early as 1589 it was used in the official designations of certain ministers presiding over executive departments of state.”

“What about secret and secrete?” Ms. Khan whispered. She sounded a bit agitated.

“The adjective secret, meaning ‘kept from knowledge or observation; hidden, concealed,’ and the noun derived from it come via French from the Latin adjective sēcrētus, which was originally the past participle of sēcernĕre

‘to separate, divide off.’ The verb secret, which is spelled the same way but is stressed on the second syllable, is obsolete. It meant ‘to keep secret, conceal, hide.’ In 1595 Thomas Maynarde published an account his voyage with Sir Francis Drake. He excuses his poor writing: ‘It was done on the sea, which…can alter any disposition…pardon these faltes and secret them from the vewe of others.’”

“OK,” said Ms. Khan. “That kind of secret means to tuck away, but secrete with an E means to discharge. Why do they have such contrary meanings?”

“The verb secrete was derived by back-formation from secretion. In other words, the suffix –tion was dropped from the noun to make the verb. Secretion, like secret, comes from the Latin sēcernĕre ‘to separate,’ but instead of separating something from view it’s separating a substance from a bodily organ.”

“Thank you, Ms. Kahn,” she said. “I hope we can count on your discretion.”

“Don’t worry. Your credit card bill will say only ‘Etymological services.’”

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