Saturday, May 10, 2014

What Does Bladder Control Have to Do with Plate Tectonics?

Because I'm a writer and an editor, I go through a lot of words on the average day — the ones I read, the ones I write, the ones I think about writing, the ones I delete, and on and on. Words become the constant hum of the warp drives in my own personal USS Enterprise. Occasionally, though, that warp drive will hiccup and grab my attention, and I'll notice for the first time the strange connections between words that I've known and used for decades.

Today, the engine hiccupped.

Most of us learn the word continent in elementary school, during our first geology or geography lesson. We learn the word incontinent later, when adults air family secrets about our elders and in commercials aired during Matlock reruns. Rarely did the two come up in the same conversation.*

And then we (and by we, I mean I) go almost thirty years before we (I) take the time to wonder what continents — those geopolitical and geological land masses that seem to multiply whenever I'm not looking — have to do with incontinence. Is there some link between sudden shifts along fault lines and sodden drips along panty lines? Is what makes a country a nation urination?** Is there a historical link between the Great Deluge of Noah and that of Nana?

So I looked into it. Turns out, there is an etymological link between continent and incontinent. It goes back to the (surprise!) Latin word continere, meaning "to hold in" or "to hold together." (This is also where we get contain.)

In the mid-fifteenth century, what we today call continents were called continent lands, meaning they were single, contiguous, usually commodious areas. They were stretches of land that were held together, not broken up by deep, dragon-filled waters.

Continence, then, refers to holding it in, and that in- appended to the beginning — as it does with incompetent and invertebrate (but not inflammable) — negates the continence.

* I was told when I was young that if you pissed on the Continental Divide, your urine would flow down both sides, half draining into the Atlantic Ocean and half in the Pacific. I don't know if that's actually true, but it would take a seriously huge amount of urine to get it to flow all the way to the ocean. Either ocean.
**Q: If you're American in the kitchen and American in the bedroom, what are you in the bathroom? A: European.