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The RCMP's red serge has nothing to do with sergeants

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said this week that the Mounties are in trouble. Without an end, as The Globe's Colin Freeze phrased it, "to a culture of bullying and a legacy of botched investigations," Canada may see the end of the force, with its long-familiar "red serge and Stetsons."

Here the Word Play interest kicks in. First, is there any connection between the woollen fabric called serge and the RCMP officers called sergeants, those with a rank below inspector but above corporal and constable?

The answer is no. Serge derives from the Latin serica, meaning wool of the Seres (not to be confused with the World Series). Seres, a Greek word possibly based on a Chinese word for silk, si, meant "the silk people," and was the name the Greeks gave to traders from the Far East.

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Sergeant derives by way of Old French sergent and Latin servient from the Latin servire, to serve. When sergeant entered English around 1200, it referred to an attendant or servant, and by 1300 to a common soldier, which may be the rank a few sergeants will be busted down to when Paulson cleans house.

Commissioner derives from the Latin committere, from com (with) and mittere (put, send), which soon came to mean entrust. Officers get their name from the Latin officium, which literally meant the performance of a task, but in medieval Latin acquired the sense of doing divine service. Should you hear RCMP operatives say, "Trust us, we're on a mission from God," blame etymology.

The Stetson got its name from John Batterson Stetson, who in 1865 began producing those wide-brimmed, 10-gallon hats made of felt, a cloth of rolled or pressed wool. Felt has the same Latin root ( filtrum) and the same conjectural Old Germanic root ( felto or filtiz) as filter, which is not surprising, since when filter entered English half a millennium ago it meant felt, which was used to filter liquids.

Filtrum is also the source of infiltrate, as in the RCMP's infiltration of groups under suspicion. It is just a coincidence that the real name of Deep Throat, the FBI associate director who in effect infiltrated the U.S. government to help reporters expose U.S. president Richard Nixon, was Felt, Mark Felt.


Elsewhere in Wordland, last week's column traced the phrase spitting image back to the early 1800s expression "the very spit of." As a few readers noted, the trail goes back further still, to the common saying that a child who looked like his or her father had been spat out by that father.

In his 1698 play Love and a Bottle, for instance, Irish-born playwright George Farquhar had a character named Trudge, described in the dramatis personae as "whore to Roebuck," speak these words to Roebuck, "an Irish Gentleman, of a wild roving temper": "Faith, you're all alike, you men are alike – Poor child! He's as like his own dadda as if he were spit out of his mouth."

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Yale University linguistics professor Laurence Horn, in a 2004 article in American Speech kindly passed along by reader Santo D'Agostino, wondered why it was always the father rather than the mother who was spitting out the child, and why saliva was the chosen vehicle for paternity. He concluded that "spitten," as in "spitten image," was also a reference to the spewing of semen.

"The identification of spit with semen," Horn wrote, "has been supported with evidence provided by a variety of sources ranging from biblical law and cultural legend to dialect variation and the history of English."

There have been other imaginative theories – that spit was a variation on spirit, or that spitting image was a variation on "splitting image" (producing two identical halves) – but Horn's argument is particularly persuasive. If there is any disagreement, let it not develop into a spat.

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