Shabby Seedlings and Tennis Rankings
By Phil Baldi, Pennsylvania State University
The English word "seed" in its basic meaning of "plant embryo capable of germinating to produce a new plant" has a very long history. It descends from the Proto-Indo-European form
"se-" (to sow), which is very well represented in the Germanic subgroup of Indo-European languages (where English is located). Here we find Old English "sed", Old High German
"saat", Old Icelandic "sadh", and Modern German "Saat", and even all the way back to 4th century CE Gothic "mana-seths" (mankind).
There are related forms in other Indo-European languages, among them Old Prussian (an extinct Baltic language) "semen", Russian "semya," Welsh (a Celtic language) "had", and some
others, all meaning "seed", though the most interesting one from the English point of view is Latin "semen". The Latin form "semen" has been imported wholesale into English as
"semen," the seed of human life.
But there are other derivatives of this form which are semantically more intriguing. For example, the term "seedy", which means "shabby" (as in a seedy hotel) is based on the idea
of a wilted flower which has gone to seed, and is spent.
A truly interesting semantic development is the term "seed", used exclusively in sports language. "To seed" (and the associated noun "seed") refers to the
arrangement of contestants in a tournament so that the more skilled participants are likely to meet in the later rounds. It is based on the idea of scattering (sowing) seeds, but
in an orderly way, that is, arranging them. Thus the "seeds" in a tournament are arranged in an orderly fashion. The word "seed" in this respect has no connection with "seat", as
in "Penn State is SEEDED number 3", which would sound exactly the same on a sports broadcast if it were "Penn State is SEATED number three," since "t" between vowels sounds like
"d" in English. And therein lies the confusion over the true meaning of this word.
Plants, shabby Your Ad Here! and sports teams, all characterized by the same ancient word form. Who ever said that semantic change is predictable?
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