Fun Etymology Tuesday – Person

Hello, good people!
We heard your cries of despair yesterday, when the Fun Etymology failed to appear. But fear not! We haven’t forgotten about you. We only have horrid social media management skills.

Yesterday’s word was “person”!

This very common word might seem boring, but its etymological meaning is very intriguing (and, dare I say, philosophically stimulating), and its roots sink into one of the most mysterious languages of Europe.

The word “person”, like so many other words, comes to English through Old French from Ancient Rome, specifically from Latin “persōna”, which originally meant “exterior appearance, face”. Where the Latin word comes from, though, is the really interesting part.

One etymology of that word is per (through) + a form of the verb sonare (to sound, make noise). So “that through which you make noise”. This would make sense, except that nobody has been able to make sense of the long ō in persōna, which by all accounts shouldn’t be there.

A far more intriguing etymology is that the word is ultimately a loanword from the Etruscan “phersu”, meaning “mask”.

Etruscan was the language of the greatest civilisation extant in Italy before the arrival of the Romans, and it was still spoken during the time of the Roman Empire. It is not related to any other known language, and unfortunately we know very little about it. The last known speaker, Emperor Claudius, is said to have written a grammar and even a dictionary, but sadly these were lost to us.
The Etruscans were great architects and possessed a vast and famous culture. They are thought to have brought the alphabet to Rome and even to the Vikings!

So is a person just a mask? Do we really show our true selves to others?
Some questions to ponder.

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