Via JHarris’s MetaFilter post:

AIT, the Agency for Instructional Television (WIKIPEDIA), was one of a number of organizations who made programs that PBS stations would air midday, for teachers to record for later use. One of these was the inexplicable Wordsmith, that explored the roots of words. Host Bob Smith, standing on a gameshow-like set with his 70s attire and mustache, takes foam balls with syllables on them out of a machine, opens them up to show inside is printed their meaning, then puts them back into the machine, which makes a sci-fi noise. Then Sesame Street-like short clips demonstrate its meaning. While it moves slow, it’s still kind of interesting! A number of episodes survive, as well as some other programs from AIT, in the Indiana University Moving Image Archive.

It is really as ’70s as it is possible to be, and it does indeed move slow, but it’s a great idea and presented in an enjoyable way. The first episode I tried was Body I, where Bob started with a ball reading HAND; he says “Its meaning isn’t hidden: “hand” means ‘hand’!” and opens the ball to reveal “hand” inside. Then he has his sidekick slice open the MANU ball to show that it too means ‘hand’; he gives examples of words using that “word cell,” including manufacture, manual, and manuscript (accompanied by images and potted histories). Of course, I got stuck on wondering where hand comes from; the OED (updated June 2013) says:

Etymology: Cognate with Old Frisian hand, hond (West Frisian hân), Old Dutch hant (Middle Dutch hant, Dutch hand), Old Saxon hand (Middle Low German hant), Old High German hant (Middle High German hant, German Hand), Old Icelandic hǫnd, Old Swedish, Swedish hand, Old Danish hand (Danish hånd), Gothic handus, Crimean Gothic handa; further etymology uncertain and disputed.
Further etymology.

Perhaps ultimately < the same Germanic base as the strong verb reflected by Gothic -hinþan (in frahinþan to take captive, ushinþan to make a prisoner of war), Old Swedish hinna to reach, arrive at (Swedish hinna), and the related words Gothic hunþs body of captives and Old English hūð plunder, booty, Old High German hunda plunder, booty; further etymology uncertain.


  1. I like that “manufactured” meant “hand-made”. I think it’s as good an example as any to shake people’s faith in the etymological fallacy.

  2. David Marjanović says

    in frahinþan to take captive, ushinþan to make a prisoner of war

    *galaxy brain*

    “Unhand me, villain!”

  3. I expect Prescriptivists to tell us we are all ignorami who have been using „manufacture“ incorrectly. Surely this is even worse than „decimate“!

    In German “manufakturieren“ can only mean „Handarbeit“ although Duden tells me the word is now obsolete.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Manufaktur still occurs as “factory where things are made by hand”.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    I expect Prescriptivists to tell us we are all ignorami

    Horrors, no!

    The only correct plural of “ignoramus” is ignoramera.

  6. i would say the plural and singular are the same, but my dialect leans southeastern – and an ivrit-speaker would of course insist on “ignoramot”.

  7. So the singulative of camera is Camus?

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    Of course.

  9. Ignoramusot (*shudder*), just like kaktusim.

  10. “Manufactured” means hand-made in the sense of human-made, not mined or gathered or harvested but made by human skill. Hand has been a metonymy for a working person for a very long time.

    It’s true that today we oppose manufactured with hand-made, but any source before the invention of interchangeable parts that writes of “manufactures” such as cloth, glass, pottery, shoes, guns, etc, is referring to items made in ways that we would call hand-made. And as I look around my room, I see that all the objects that surround me came into being under the guidance of a person’s hands. Somewhere in the world a human being made this thing.

    The etymology broadens and deepens the meaning. People who think it’s clever to belittle it are choosing to impoverish their understanding – why, I can’t guess.

  11. Laslzo Toth, KSC, POEE says

    The host, Bob Kupa’a Smith, was a fascinating and genial man who was very active online and interested in technology and learning right up to his death. He’s well worth looking into. I’m so glad somebody found this show, which kindled my love of words when I was… probably a bit young to know entirely what was going on.

    Here’s just a sample, from his obituary. Note the early Apple II adoption and the blue hair. 🙂


  12. Lars Mathiesen says

    Manufaktur in Danish usage was production of goods “on an industrial scale, esp. with strict division of labour,” but opposed to Fabrik — the latter being a factory using heavy machinery (‘fire and hammers’) instead of hands to produce goods. So cottage industries didn’t count, even though many of the clothes sold by Manufakturhandlere were probably produced that way — in retail, the distinction was between manufakturvarer and skræddersyet (tailored, bespoke). It still lives on when fashion houses produce haute couture besides prêt-a-porter collections.

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