Posted by: Jack Henry | October 26, 2016

Editor’s Corner: Denouement and Noose

Today I have two etymologically related words for you from Words of a Feather: A Humorous Puzzlement of Etymological Pairs, by Murray Suid. It may seem a bit grim, but I’m just trying to get you in the mood for Halloween.

Denouement and Noose

Noose sounds like the sort of word that grew up in the Old West, a dusty term suited to frontier justice.

Denouement, on the other hand, has a wonderfully sophisticated feel about it, especially if—like the French—you pronounce the final syllable nasally. If you’re not confident about your pronunciation, try pinching your nose shut as you say the word while imagining yourself chatting with the literati at the Algonquin Hotel, circa 1920.

Yet strange as it seems, the two words are closely related. Noose comes not from the American West but the south of France. It derives from Old Provincial nous, “knot,” which traces back to the Latin nodus, “knot.”

Denouement comes from the same knotty root by way of the Old French desnouer, “to untie.” In other words, denouement is the place in the story where the plot is unraveled.

The word is in the long tradition of fiber-based literary expressions. The most memorable example is clue, from the Old English cleowen, “ball of yarn,” an allusion to the story of Theseus, a Greek hero who escaped from the Labyrinth by following a long thread. The same idea is contained in the nineteenth-century sailors’ phrase “spinning a yarn.”

The complex etymology you just read may itself seem like a yarn. But why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? “Fiction, after all,” explained Mark Twain, “has to make sense.”

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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