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Fascinating Word Finds

As a long time avid reader and someone who has always prided himself on vocabulary, the study of ancient history and culture has been a humbling experience. The number of words that I didn’t know I didn’t know is staggering, and since I have begun to read as much in Greek or in Latin as in English, I now have a whole new set of languages to be surprised by.

Dictionaries proliferate.

Nowadays, I find that I am never very far from some sort of dictionary when curiosity and or ignorance strikes. This slows down my reading in terms of words per minute considerably, but also increases comprehension and interest as I let myself be swept along by the history of the words themselves. Philology; no wonder!

So, in acknowledgement of my new slower reading methods, this feature, Note Bene, is going to be about unusual or interesting words that I come across in my reading. It may be about words in other languages or words in English or words that cross over between languages. I cannot promise you will find them interesting, only that I have.

To start with I would like to use the title of this feature itself as subject: Nota Bene, or NB for short. Now, I have seen this quite a lot in academic writing, especially that of the more old fashioned variety, my special interest, but knew only that it meant ‘to note’ before looking it up properly. As some of you likely know, NB is an abbreviation for the Latin, ‘Nota Bene‘, which simply means, in English, to ‘note well,’ or as the Shorter Oxford puts it: “Mark well, observe particularly.”[1] It is also marked as “alien, or not naturalized,” [2] so perhaps more clarity might come from looking at the Latin.

The question that occurs to me is one with regard to nota itself: is it a verb, a noun, or what, exactly? Ending with an a suggests that it is a common 1st declension Latin noun—indeed nota is a Latin noun defined by Lewis & Short as, in its first definition, as “a mark, sign, note[3]—but the English seems to be being used as if it were an imperative verb, or perhaps, as a participle. At the very least ‘good note’ seems pedantic or artificial compared to ‘(I am) noting well,’ a participle; or ‘(you) note well,’ as if an imperative verb. This supposition on my part would seem to be borne out by the fact that bene is not an adjective for good or well—that is bonus—but is, rather, an adverb.[4]

In Latin, the imperative is one of the three moods of Latin verbs, the other two being subjunctive and indicative. Looking at the Lewis and Short entry for the noun nota I found that its etymological root was from the verb nosco which, given its antique form of GNOSCO, appears itself ro be related to or cognate with the Greek γνῶσις or gnosis: knowing, knowledge.[5]

Following the verb nosco, however, proved to be a red herring when looking for the imperative form. Nosco, it turns out, is a 3rd form conjugation verb, so the imperatives would work out to be either nosce or noscite, neither of which looks much like nota. Another possibility, of course, was always the participle, which can work out to nota in either the feminine or the plural neuter form, but then either the gender or the number of the form is ill-explained. What is needed, it seems, is a 1st conjugation verb, not nosco.[6]

Fortunately I am stubborn enough to keep looking ahead for what must be, I surmise, a verb of the form noto. And sure enough, there it is. Noto itself is derived from nota which in turn had originated in nosco. Noto, the 1st conjugation verb, works out perfectly to nota in the imperative, and means appropriately “to mark, or designate with a mark.” [7] So mark it well, this is the origin of the designation NB or N.B. in antique academic books.

Now, what was it about 1721 that led to this notation being used in English?…

[1] Little, Fowler, and Coulson.”Nota bene.” The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: On Historical Principles, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press: 1968.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Charleton Lewis. “nota.” A Latin Dictionary: Lewis and Short, 1st ed. Oxford University Press: 1879; 1993.
[4] Ibid., “bene.”
[5] Franco Montanari. “γνῶσις.” The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek, 1st ed. Brill: 2015.
[6] Robert Henle. Latin: Grammar. Layola Press: 1958.
[7] Lewis. “noto”.