Thursday, January 17, 2008

Imprimatur; Indicia

A few days ago this word came up on DD, and it remedially tickled my fancy. Obviously, not too much, or I would have done this entry sooner, but what do you expect? I'm a busy person like everyone else, and not everything is immediately fascinating.

Imprimatur comes from the Latin "in" "primere" for "press in" as in to print by pressing. It shares a common etymological root to the word "impress" and therefore to the word "press", for quite literally to print by pressing or imprint. When we finally get to the command form of the verb c. 1650, the word took on the derivative meaning of "let it be printed", and retained that meaning through to the present, although now as a noun for an official printing, and therefore, a sanction or approval as for the printing or something that could be printed.

The securing of license of a copyright is an imprimatur. Ding. Technically correct. Idiotic to say. What it doesn't tell you about the word is redundant in the licensing reference so the sentence sounds unnatural, almost forced, which in fact it was because the first sense of the word, the approval to print, is not how it is most frequently used. As I've discussed with other words, the fun is in taking it out of the literal element. That the corporate president personally typed the plan gave it the imprimatur to implement immediately. Plaintiff's counsel frequently believes that because he asks for evidence to be admitted in a motion that the judge will give it her imprimatur. Doesn't even need to be in writing to have the usage work, although the writing would be a better inference from the word. So, the word works with things that actually are in writing, or could have been in writing (e.g., theories, ideas, hopes, dreams). When a dictator remarks on his desire this is as good as an imprimatur to make the desire a reality.

Ok, now that I've exhausted imprimatur, it occurs to me that truly interesting word is indicia. This is really just Latin borrowed into English without modification, like alumni, but at least in my circles, indicia gets inappropriately used for imprimatur, and so although I have my rules against defining foreign words, I'll make an exception for clarification.

Indicia is the combinative form of "in" and "dic" for "to show or declare" from the Indo-European root "deik", and gives us common words like indicate and index, and even the reference to index finger. Therefore, indicia is a sign that shows or declares something. A dog tag is an indicia of ownership of the pet on your leash. And herein lies the rub. Indicia is plural, indicium (like datum and memorandum) is singular. Therefore, technically, it should be a dog tag is an indicium of ownership of the pet on your leash, but now we've become overly erudite. It is Latin, and as such, we should observe its gender and number forms accordingly, however, I don't hear many people use datum correctly, either among scientists or lawyers, so to avoid being corrected, make sure your signs are always plural. The judge's frequent nods were indicia of agreement with the arguments I was making. Whew. Her groans were indicia that the masseusse had found the right tension points in her shoulders. Sometimes you might hear someone speak of an imprimatur of approval, and this is the misuse that I referenced. Obviously, we know that imprimatur is itself an approval so this usage is inherently redundant, and makes imprimatur into a sign, which as we know is indicia. Indicia of approval is the correct phrase. Signatures on the contract were indicia that the parties approved the terms. I will note that indicia are acts, not specific words, which show or declare, so the terms of the contract themselves are not indicia of the intent of the parties, but rather the signing of the contract which are indicia of the intent to abide by the terms. The negative can also be a sign. Her mother's unwillingness to sign the permission form for the field trip to go rock climbing was an indicium of her fear that her daughter would get hurt. Hyper correct and very odd sounding, indeed.

Personally, I like the word indicia much more than imprimatur, but I'm going to be especially vigilant to use imprimatur as the approval and not the sign and to see how the singular of indicia plays among my friends.

1 comment:

Curmudgeon said...

I thought this might be of interest:

Imprimatur, (Latin: “let it be printed”), in the Roman Catholic church, a permission, required by contemporary canon law and granted by a bishop, for the publication of any work on Scripture or, in general, any writing containing something of peculiar significance to religion, theology, or morality. Strictly speaking, the imprimatur is nothing more than the permission. But because its concession must be preceded by the favourable judgment of a censor (nihil obstat: “nothing hinders [it from being printed]”), the term has come to imply ecclesiastical approval of the publication itself. Nevertheless, the imprimatur is not an episcopal endorsement of the content, nor is it a guarantee of doctrinal integrity. It does indicate that nothing offensive to faith or morals has been discovered in the work.