semi, sesqui

Are you looking for some kind of sign? It’s right here. These dark marks on your screen, the absence of light letting you know there are letters. Which are signs. They stand for something when you sit and read them. Once you see them, you’re halfway to the meaning. Take something away (light) and get something (signs, provoking sense). Welcome to semiotics.

Semiotics is the study of signs – things that signify other things. It comes from Classical Greek σημεῖον sémeion ‘mark, sign’, which is an extended-play version of σῆμα séma (which signifies about the same thing, but it’s smaller). The semi in semiotics looks just like the semi in semiconscious, but it’s not, and you’re probably at least half aware of that. That latter semi is from Latin and means (as I sure hope you know) ‘half’.

Now, if you have the semi that’s a sign, you’re halfway (semi) there because it’s the seed of understanding. ‘Seed’? Another semi – as in seminal and disseminate – this time coming from Latin semen. So the seed is planted and takes root, and soon you have the whole thing. And then it bears fruit with its own seeds in turn.

Because meaning begets meaning. Signs provoke ideas but signs resemble other signs and ideas resemble other ideas. You don’t go from half to whole and stop there. You overshoot. You don’t double up, you triple up – and at the same time go just half again up: you add the semi to the whole. The sign and the signified bring a bonus. And you get a bit more by taking a bit off.

I don’t mean you should be half-assed, but… consider the sestertius. Do you know what that is? It’s a Roman coin, and it got around. If you used British currency before decimalisation, you knew £/s/d for pounds/shillings/pence, but you may have assumed the s was for ‘shillings’. It was not: the d was for denarii and the s for sestertii. Well, never mind that: in England there were 12 d in an s, but in Roman coinage the point of a sestertius was that it was two and a half asses.

Wait! An as was a Roman coin, first worth a pound of bronze but later worth half an ounce of copper. The sestertius was worth two of those plus half the third: semis tertio. See how semistertio was telescoped into sestertius? See how you’re never going to think about sestertii or shillings again without thinking about two and a half asses? That’s because you have the sign and the thing and a further signification. “Not half,” as they say in England, meaning ‘entirely and then some’. A whole and a half.

Or, as the ever-economical Latin put it, just ‘and half’: semisque. You did know that que (pronounced /kwe/) was used in Latin to mean ‘and’ when tacked onto the end of a word, right? As in Senatus Populusque Romanum, ‘senate and people of Rome’, abbreviated SPQR (which I have been assured really stands for “sono pazzi questi Romani,” Italian for “these Romans are crazy”). So semisque meant ‘and half’, but like sestertius it got telescoped in so it’s not two words but just one and a half: sesqui. Which means ‘one and a half’.

And sesqui isn’t even a word. It’s a prefix. It’s not used independently; it’s tacked onto what you have one and a half of, to add to the meaning. A favourite example is sesquipedalian, which comes from an original that meant ‘foot and a half long’ but showed up in the Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry) of Horatius (Horace) in sesquipedalia verba, ‘foot-and-a-half-long words’. Now sesquipedalian refers to very long words and their use.

That’s not the only sesqui word out there, though. There are quite a lot of things you can have one and a half of. One you might hear is sesquicentennial, referring to the 150th anniversary of something, such as the getting together of assorted politicians to sign papers agreeing to join together colonies to make a country – a sort of political wedding anniversary. The USA had its sesquicentennial on July 4, 1926; Canada’s is July 1, 2017. (Of course there were people in both places before then, some of whom were not invited to the wedding, so to speak. Such celebrations always have much more going on than just the face value.)

And, of course, there’s my blog, Sesquiotica. You will recall semiotics from the start of all this; a leading academic journal of semiotics (and one which published a paper of mine once) is Semiotica. Well, a person who likes to go from half to one and a half without falling into the whole is a person who likes a good wordplay. I am one such, and my friend Kevin Schwartz is another. Kevin is now a standup comedian in Wisconsin, but I first met him in Boston when we were both members of a couple of high-IQ societies. My interest in semiotics led him at one time to make the pun sesquiotics, and I have kept it. After all, what good is a word that can only mean one thing at a time? Let’s have some meaning and some more! And so, naturally, my blog, being the centre of sesquiotics, is Sesquiotica. I aim to keep the “squee” in sesquiotics.

3 responses to “semi, sesqui

  1. I mistyped “semiotics” and came up with a word, not original to me. Here, it’s used with a hyphen:

    “Familiarity in art is never shocking if it merely reconfirms the cultural settlement. This is why post-modernism was a wet fish of a critique: its reconstituted semio-tricks had the effect of a veterans’ get together.”

    Dave Beech

  2. Are hour vocabulary posts archived on the net? I’ve got some 500 in my email folder and am running out of space! But I want to be able to access them, as well as tell others where to find them!

    Dottie Beck

    Check out


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