Philology Phriday–Novel

3 Sep

There are two uses of the word novel, though no way of telling their differences just by hearing them pronounced side by side. Their difference lies only in their respective parts of speech and, thus, in their placement within sentences. There’s novel the adjective signifying newness or ingenuity, lightly used and  even so mainly in the academic world. And there’s the thing, the novel, a noun for the form of writing that has advanced and evolved and unraveled over the course of centuries (check out Kundera’s The Curtain for a good perspective on the novel’s evolutionl). I bring up this split in uses for the same phonetic sound only because it contrasts really well with my most interesting finding in looking up this word.

Novel comes from the Latin novella or novellus and meant, most literally, the new shoot of a plant. A fitting beginning for the adjective use. That meaning, however, died long ago. In the 10th century, the word came to mean, simply, something new. A novelty. And briefly afterward, the French start using the word “nouvelles” to mean information and news. And when we think about news, all we must do is see the “new” inside of it to see how our conception of news all the time, played fresh for us by the second on tickers and twitter feeds, is really not such a new idea. Un-novel perhaps, our idea of news information stems from this Middle French root for novel that conflated ideas of newness with the conveyance of information.

What seems most unknown about the use of the word novel is how it became connected with a literary form. My only guess is that, at the time of its inception, it had this air of newness that recent adopters of the news-use of words like “nouvelles” amended their use to include the new genre. The first to use a form of novel for the literary genre are the Italians. Around the 13th century we see the use of the feminine “novella” which really meant a literary prose form that could span any range of pages, from short story to, well, the size of Infinite Jest.

Soon enough the words pops up in every major language group in Europe, most sticking to the feminizing “a” suffix. All except for the English, who decide to chop off their neighbors’ unnecessary and ornate “uhhh” sounds. They stuck to plain and simple and elegant “novel” to signify the burgeoning new form of literary entertainment.

And yet, it all stemmed from that one Latin term–a new shoot of a plant.

A nota bene on the English pronunciation of the word. It was originally pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, implying its descent from more continental pronunciations like “novella”. The way we pronounce it today, with the first syllable stressed, is actually the Scottish way of pronunciation.


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