What Planet is This?

22 Aug 2005

An Aphetic Etymology

Aphetic words, where the initial unstressed vowel or syllable has been elided, are hard to trace in English unless both forms survive or have an obvious etymology. Commonly, for example, we have squire from esquire, and lone from alone. In poetry we have 'gainst from against, and 'twixt from betwixt, amongst others. One particular aphetic form which is enjoying a resurgence is the Middle English word "leet", first recorded in 1441 according to the OED, being the aphetic form of the word elite, itself from Old French "eslite".

That first usage is from the Extracts from the council register of the Burgh of Aberdeen, first published in print in 1844, which contains the sentence "Quhasaeuer that happynnis to be put furth at lites to be chosin alderman." The use of leets, or lites, there exposes its original sense of "a list of candidates for an office" as Webster's puts it. The strange looking word "quhasaeuer" is actually just whosoever, which was spelled all manner of weird ways before settling on the modern spelling.

Another unrelated sense of "leet" is that of a court. Specifically, the leet was "essentially the territorial aspect of frankpledge: numbers of tithings were organized into leets, or wards, which were normally sub-units of the hundred; in some towns, constabularies were similar sub-units." This word is, however, of obscure origin, and has been around since the 13th century. It may come from Old English lǽþ, but it's not known for sure. It gave rise also to this handsome specimin of a word: "leet-ale, n. A feast or merry making in the time of leet."

In contemporary colloquial usage, the term has almost degraded back to being a synonym of its etymological root, elite. The version with numbers (no, they're not ASCII yoghs) has been around only since c.1994, as the earliest Usenet message containing it attests. Note that that message was sent at leet-time, a new compound that has nothing to do with leet-ale, denoting instead the time thirty seven minutes past one.

It's commonly wondered whether till is an aphetic word. As Michael Quinion writes it's not, since "till" has been around much longer than "until". Therefore, till should not be spelled with a leading apostrophe. Of course, 'til without the extra trailing "l" is a valid aphetic formation from until, but it seems a little pointless when we already have till around.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "An Aphetic Etymology", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/leet


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