The Semantics of Exāmen


  • Boaz Faraday Schuman University of Copenhagen



Latin semantics, Indo-European semantics, bees, beekeeping, weight scales


In the major French and German etymological dictionaries of Latin, there is some puzzlement over the semantics of exāmen: how can one word refer to a measurement or examination, but also to a swarm of bees? Walde and Hofmann suggest these two disparate meanings stem from the diverse meanings of the verb exigō (<*ex-agō, ‘to drive out’), from which exāmen derives. They claim these two senses of exāmen become two words in the Latin Sprachgefühl. Ernout and Meillet agree: there is more than one exāmen in the Latins’ sentiment linguistique. I, too, agree. But this approach does not tell us why these terms derive from exigō, nor does it give any hint of an underlying concept which measurements and swarms of bees share, which makes a derivation from exigō appropriate to both.

The present paper addresses this puzzle by reducing the two meanings of exāmen to one meaning of the parent term *ex-agō: ‘to drive out.’ In sum: a swarm of bees is a ‘driving out’ or outpouring, and a measurement or examination is a ‘driving out’ or setting out for scrutiny. This interpretation is moreover supported by semantically parallel uses of cognate terms in other Indo-European languages, notably Greek and Old Irish, and by semantic parallels in English and in the Slavic language family. Along the way, I touch upon a philosophical puzzle: at what point do evolving linguistic items with a common source become distinct from one another?