Lexie Kahn and the Origin of Concern and Discern

I had finished my java but not my papers. As I got up to order a Frappuccino I passed four women laughing and gossiping in Spanish, oblivious to the blond toddlers who chased each other around and under their table. On the way back I saw that the women held coffee drinks in one hand and crayons in the other. They were meticulously coloring in identical scenes of winter in New England and lettering “Taylor,” “Tyler” or “McKenna” at the bottom.

Back in my “office” I heard the buzz of an incoming text. It was from an unknown number but I took a gander. “Rice is ckd. I’m certain UR discriminating enuf 2 discern what’s your concern & what’s not,” it read. The message had Ms. Big’s fingerprints all over it, even if it came from one of her flunkies. But what was she driving at?

Apparently she was another one of those cheapskate billionaires. I heard J. Paul Getty rationed paper clips; looked like the Boss Lady was rationing alphanumeric characters. “Rice” obviously meant Susan Rice, her rival for the secretary of state position, but what did “ckd” mean? Check out or vetted? Held in check? Or cooked?

The rest of the message looked like a veiled threat and an etymological treat. I had just noted the fact that discrete is from Latin discrēt-us ‘separate, distinct’, the past participle of discernĕre, meaning ‘to separate, divide.’ I took a wild guess that discern might also be related to discernĕre. Yup.

What about concern? Could it really be a combination of con- meaning ‘with or together’ and cernĕre, ‘to separate’? Wouldn’t it cancel itself out? Well, it seems the meaning ‘together, in combination with’ evolved into ‘altogether, completely’ and so in some words, the prefix is just an intensifier, you know, like toootally. Concern came into English from medieval Latin and French. It originally meant ‘to distinguish, discern, perceive.’ In the 1500s it evolved to mean ‘to refer to, to be about’ and in the 1600s, ‘to be of importance to; to be the business of’ and the related noun in the sense used by Ms. Big, ‘a matter that affects or touches one,’ arose by 1700.

There are a couple more related words in her message. More on them later.

Cafe, Judith Herman. Susan Rice, Wikimedia Commons.

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