I hope this word tasting doesn’t seem underwritten. No, wait, I hope it does.
Subscribe, as you may know, comes from Latin sub ‘under’ and scribere ‘write’. It meant, originally, writing your name at the bottom of a document, under the rest of the text – you know, adding your signature – to signify agreement. Could be agreement with what it says; we still have that sense figuratively: “I don’t subscribe to that theory.” Could be agreement to do what it specifies – in particular, pay for something; we have that sense too, as in “subscribe to a stock option.” A few hundred years ago, if someone wanted to start a periodical publication, since the internet was not widely available at the time, they generally couldn’t use Kickstarter or Patreon, so they would issue print appeals for people to underwrite them: give me so much money and in return you’ll get so many issues. Nowadays when you subscribe to a magazine, that’s still technically what you’re doing – but you can also subscribe to some things for free, in which case you’re not underwriting them but you still get their writing under your door (or probably in your email inbox).
So subscribe runs the gamut from ‘have no issues with’ to ‘get issues from’. And it can mean ‘underwrite’ or just ‘read over’.
English being the lexical overstuffed pillow that it is, it has two words where nearby languages have one each. We have both underwrite and subscribe; other Western European languages have a word that means one, the other, or both, but always literally means ‘write under’. German has unterschreiben, which means ‘sign’ or ‘endorse’ (endorse, by the way, comes from Old French and Latin meaning ‘on the back’, as in write on the back of, as in what you do with a cheque, or check for Americans). Dutch has ondertekenen, which means ‘write your signature at the bottom of’ but can also mean ‘sign up for’. Italian has sottoscrivere, which means about the same as English subscribe. French has souscrire, which is understood like underwrite but they also use it as we use subscribe (though they have another word for that too, s’abonner) because they have not lost the connection. Spanish has suscribir, likewise.
Along with the Romance/Germanic doublet, though, English has one more thing that the others don’t: anagrams. Well, nearly. Subscribe needs just an extra e to anagram to issue bribe. As in bribe someone to get issues of a publication, or bribe someone with issues of a publication to get their actual money.
I’m tasting this word today as a… well, let’s say an inducement. I’ve switched my blog to a paid plan so it no longer has ads (and I will also, in the fullness of time, add a feature to buy signed copies of my books directly). I’m not going to make people pay for the stuff that’s always been free – my word tasting notes, my occasional articles on linguistics and editing, and my pronunciation tip videos. But as an incentive to get people to underwrite my site, I’m going to add a subscription-only section. All of my “new old word” entries (following on soray) will be for subscribers who put as little as $1 a month on the table – and I’m going to record myself reading my blog posts, for those who prefer to listen (for $2 a month). And there’s more!
Visit https://www.patreon.com/sesquiotic to find out more, or watch this video. (Oh, and if you don’t want to subscribe, that’s fine! I’m not expecting most people to. It’s just an extra perk for those who wish to underwrite my writing.)
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