By Anatoly Liberman
Two weeks ago, I devoted a post to the history of the word mass “service.” While explaining how missa was abstracted from the Latin phrase missa est “is dismissed” and then turned into a noun, I quoted a bit ironically The Century Dictionary. In its opinion, the word for dismissal was applied to the entire service “by an easy transfer.” The transfer is far from easy, but I did not want to make a long post even longer and stopped there. As a result, I received two questions: one about the special literature on the etymology of mass and one just on this “easy transfer.” First the literature. Some titles are mentioned in my bibliography of English etymology. Perhaps the most interesting of them is the oldest, by John Bruce, “On the Word ‘Mass’” in Archaeologia 21, 1826, 113-16. In those days and even much later, journals on archeology, local antiquities, ethnology, and folklore often accepted contributions on the history of words (some of them still do). A very useful modern article, which I overlooked, while compiling the bibliography, is by Fr. Elpidius Pax (obviously, a Greek-Latin pseudonym) “Zur Deutung des Wortes missa ‘Messe’” [“On the Meaning of the Word missa ‘Mass’”] (Die Sprache 1, 1949, 87-100). In a way, the question about semantics is the main in the history of mass; the phonetic shift from i to a has been accounted for in a satisfactory way. According to a rather persuasive hypothesis, the point at which the catechumens were dismissed was the most memorable moment of the service, because after the dismissal only the initiated remained in the congregation. Hence, allegedly, the transfer.
We can now proceed to mess. Today the most familiar meaning of mess is “jumble” (what a mess!), but mess “a group of servicemen taking meals together; the food taken by such a group” and messroom (on board a ship) are also universally understood English words. Both amateurs and professional linguists once tried to derive mess “food” from Latin mensa “table.” This is an attractive etymology; for example, on German campuses Mensa is “dining hall.” Its main drawback is that it is wrong. Mensa made its way into Old English (mese “table; what is put on the table”; there also was the verb mesan “to eat”), but it had a long vowel in the first syllable and would not have become Modern Engl. mess; at best, one would expect mees. Besides this, mess turned up in English only at the beginning of the 13th century and thus could not be a continuation of mese. However, see below!
These are the attested senses of mess in chronological order: “a portion or serving of food, dish,” “mixed food for an animal,” “medley, jumble”; “a company of people eating together” was first recorded in the 15th century. A mess of peas for dinner or a mess of oats for a horse are phrases one nowadays won’t hear too often (if at all), but the biblical collocation a mess of pottage has preserved the oldest meaning of mess (pottage is a phonetic variant of porridge; Esau sold his birthright for a portion of lentil stew). The etymon of mess is Old French mes “dish” (now spelled mets under the influence of metre “place”), which in turn goes back to Latin missus “course; course of food.” A mess (missus) was the food sent from the kitchen, “a sending.” A parallel case is Old Engl. sand, from sendan “send”; one of its many meanings was “dish.” Old French mes went back to the same Romance root that we have in missa, which yielded mass.
The paths from “food” to “meal; communal eating” and “a place where people eat together” are easy to visualize, and the circumstance that mess is limited to a military environment testifies only to the narrowing of meaning, a common process in the history of words. Yet is it possible that when Middle Engl. mes “food” (with a short vowel) got into the way of mes “table” (from mese, which must have lost the second e rather early), the two began to interact, despite the fact that mes(e) had a long vowel? After all, food is taken at table, and the association springs to mind at once. Some researchers suspected this sort of interplay, but mes(e) “table” dropped out of the language long before the modern period, so that we have no way of confirming our “suspicion.” Some uneasiness is also caused by the sense “formless heap, jumble” and the accent laid on “food for cattle.” The Old English word maxwyrt (with long a), from makswyrt “mash-wort, new beer,” could have been another influence in the history of mess (this is Skeat’s plausible suggestion). The root of maks- has been preserved in Engl. mash “beat into a pulp,” as in mashed potatoes. Mash “warm food of meal for cattle; pulpy mass” surfaced only in the 16th century, but it looks like an older word. Mess, mash, and even mesh (the latter probably related to mash) could have been partly confused and produced the mess modern etymologists have been trying to clean up. The development from “human food” to “pulp” and “jumble” does not appear to be quite natural. Today, those who comment on a mess for which we are responsible do not imply that we have left food on the plate and gone. In similar fashion, messing around does not suggest going from restaurant to restaurant. Curiously, only mess with a negative, metaphorical meaning has wide currency in the modern language, a sad comment on the survival of the ugliest. Good words, like trees, die tragically but noiselessly and are soon forgotten.
The number of nouns and verbs having the root miss- ~ mit- and its French cognate is great: compare mission, missionary, missive, dismiss, missal, missile, message (but not messuage “a dwelling house with offices”), admit, commit, omit, permit, remit, submit, and so forth; however, miss “fail to hit” and amiss are not among them. Nor is mass “a body of matter,” from Latin massa, allied to mass “service.” Massage and massacre have nothing to do with mass1 and mass2 either. How masher “lady killer” originated is anybody’s guess (the conjectures have been rather many).
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”