What is an article? What is an essay?

When I started my blog, I wasn't sure what to call my pieces of writing. The first two words that came to mind where essay and article.

When I think of any article, I think of a section from a magazine or journal. In general an article has some authority, but not always--after all, even fake news outlets can publish articles.

My written pieces are like articles in that they're typically researched and represent my best attempt to say something on a certain subject.

On the other hand, my written pieces are like essays, in that they are attempts--I still don't see my self as an expert, and my writing is typically exploratory and speculative rather than definitive.

Here's a dilemma, let's do some research.

What do we mean when we say article?

The word "article" is old.

About 800 years old.

Of course, back in the 12th century the word was not article exactly but Old French, meaning the "separate parts of anything written".

The Old French is, in turn, based on the Latin articulus, which is the diminutive form of artus, meaning "a joint".  In other words, articulus means "little joint"

The Latin is, of course, based on translations from Greek. In this case arthron, meaning "a joint" or "pivot".

A common related word in modern English is articulate.

Going back even further, all of these words share the Proto-Indo-European root  ar, meaning "to fit together".

This root makes up words like adorn, art (when used to describe a skill resulting from learning or practice), or order.

So we can see how the word article is deeply related to the concept of bringing things together.

Beginning around the 1500s scholars translated the Greek arthron into the Latin articulus to describe the parts of speech that tie together various propositions or clauses.

It wasn't until the early 1700s that article was applied to describe specific elements in a journal like we might use it today to describe a magazine article. Evidence for this can be found in, say, the Articles of Confederation in the United States. It was until the end of the 18th century that article was, based on this usage, used to describe pieces of property in the way that we might today say an article of clothing.

So where does this leave us?

I prefer the older sense of the word that invokes bring together or combining.

I also resonate with the sense of the word that describes like items.

And I can't leave behind the notion that there's something at state in articles, something hinges on them like a pivot.

In my articles I bring together disparate ideas or stories. Each one is like a pin in the wall, upon which I hang my beliefs where they hinge in the wind for you to see.

Now let's take a look at the word essay.

What do we mean when we say essay?

The word "essay" has a similar history.

The most commonly recited tale of the etymology of essay traces back to the French writer Montaigne.

Michel de Montaigne wrote in Middle French in the late 16th century. Montaigne called his publications essais--like the Modern french verb essayer, meaning to try-- to indicate that his was exploratory and meant to test his ideas, rather than to explain or prove anything. If you've ever written an essay for school, you have Montaigne to thank.

Of course, like article, essay has older roots yet.

The Old French essai is derived from the Latin exigere, meaning something like to weight out or examine.

Of course, the Latin itself has roots in the Proto-Indo European root "ag-", meaning "to drive, or draw out".

Modern English words sharing this root include act, purge, and coagulate, among many others.

Taking all of this in, then, essay means something close to "to draw out meaning in an exploratory fashion".

In this way, my essays are attempts that I make to tease the meaning out of the world I experience around me.

In the end, do these words signify different parts of my website or not?

My writing melds the forms. My pieces are Articles & Essays.

End notes.

  1. Etymological research provided by Etymonline

  2. Montaigne's Essais are interesting for many reasons. For one, he published three versions of the same text over about 15 years. In each version, he annotated the previous version with new thoughts. You can read a number of reasonable English translations for free here.
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