Yesterday morning, listening to Alice's Restaurant, our annual Thanksgiving day ritual, I was having a conversation with L about, of all things, Ricky Nelson’s song, “The Garden Party”. The lyrics seem to be about being disappointed by people and learning to go your own way. At this point L said, “We expect icons to be paragons.”
L says stuff like that a lot, so I’m used to having to mull over what she says, and her remark made me think about the word “paragon”, its meaning and its roots. “That’s an interesting word. Para- means beside and –gon in words like ‘hexagon’ derives ultimately from –genu (knee) which has to do with angles. So, are paragons ‘beside the angle’?
I am a word nerd; so much so that I was given a dictionary of PIE (proto-Indo-European) roots for Christmas one year. Words to me are like a person standing at the end of a trail. The trail disappears behind that person and the only way to know its origin is to follow it backwards, and wonder why the trail ended where it did.
Paragon is not derived from “beside the angle”; that’s the problem with off-the-cuff etymology. The Online Etymology Dictionary told me:
1540s, from Middle French paragon "a model, pattern of excellence" (15c., Modern French parangon), from Italian paragone, originally "touchstone to test gold" (early 14c.), from paragonare "to test on a touchstone, compare," from Greek parakonan "to sharpen, whet," from para- "on the side" (see para- (1)) + akone "whetstone," from PIE root *ak- "be sharp, rise (out) to a point, pierce."
I was half right, which - a college literature teacher assured us all – is wrong.
The problem was the consonant shift from the Greek –akone to the Italian –agone – perhaps…
A touchstone is basically a whetstone. Assaying gold using a touchstone is simple in principle, but requires experience to be accurate. A standard piece of gold of a known karat is compared against the piece of gold in question. Gold is scraped off onto the touchstone, from each, and treated with acid. The resulting change is compared to the standard. Several phrases may have arisen from this process, like subjecting something to “the acid test” and comparing something to the “gold standard”.
The process goes back into antiquity; far enough back to be the unrecognizable source of modern words.
Without pointing to any specific examples, the word “paragon” is often added to the names of things that aren’t. Has anyone stayed here? It might deserve the name.
Grand Paragon Hotel
We assign certain classes of people to the category of paragon; like OUR pastor, or OUR Senator or our favorite actor and then are crushed when we find out that they are just people, perhaps more flawed than most.
The recent spate of accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct on the part of comedians, producers, congressmen, senators, talk show hosts and an Alabama candidate for the U.S. Senate, brings home the faulty concept of people being paragons of virtue.
Incidentally, there are a number of words which derive from the –ak- root; acute is from Latin acuere “sharpen” which is from acus, needle. Accurate which sounds like might have that root did not.
And, agony which sounds like it might have come from “akone” is from another Greek root, "agonia", originally meaning a mental “contest” or “struggle” that ultimately took on its present meaning.
And that brings me back to the title and herbs. One of my favorite herbs is tarragon. So, acting like Toula’s father, Gus, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I thought tarra- derived from terra (earth) and –gon (sharp, maybe from the leaf shape). Now, any linguist would shudder at the thought of combining a Latin root (terra) with a Greek root (-gon) but things happen. I was not only wrong, I was totally wrong. Here’s the actual etymology:
Artemisia Dracunculus, Eastern European plant of the wormwood genus, 1530s, from Medieval Latin tragonia, from Byzantine Greek tarchon, from Arabic tarkhon, from a non-Arabic source, perhaps Greek drakon "serpent, dragon" (via drakontion "dragonwort"); see dragon. From the same source come Spanish taragona, Italian targone, French estragon (with unetymological prefix). Its aromatic leaves long have been used for flavoring (especially vinegar).”
I hope everyone had a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat.