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shameless pleading

Notions

Incidentally, if you spend your life “scrapbooking,” what’s in the scrapbook?

Dear Word Detective:  A while back I was in a fabric store and I entered a section where the buttons, zippers and other trimmings were located.  The section is named “Notions” and is apparently so named in other fabric stores.  I understand that “notion” means sundries.  But it also means “a personal inclination,” among other definitions.  What is the connection between the two words, if any? — Al.

Fabric stores?  Fabric stores give me the wimwams.  Around here we have cavernous warehouse-like stores with cutesy names like “Fabrics ‘n Stuff” that sell not only fabric and sewing supplies, but also every conceivable variation on things like “101 easy patterns for pseudo-rustic ornamental pillows to give your neighbor’s nephew on graduation from his twelve-step program.”  Is there some secret race of immortal and easily-amused creatures living among us who plan to spend the next ten thousand years actually sewing this stuff?  And why are they so fond of scarecrows?

“Notion” is an interesting word, one of those English words that has been around long enough to acquire a wide variety of meanings, some of which seem quite unconnected to its other definitions.  The root of “notion” is the Latin word “notio,” based on “noscere,” meaning “to know” (which also gave us our English word “know”).  That Latin word “notio” was actually coined by the great Roman statesman and orator Cicero, who used it to translate the Greek “ennoia” (“conception, idea”) into Latin.

Our English “notion” first appeared in the late 14th century meaning “idea or concept” in a philosophical sense, but by the early 17th century “notion” was being used in our modern sense to mean “an idea, belief or view held by a person or group” (“It is not a new notion … that the history of the world is divided into certain great periods,” 1857).

Beginning in the 15th century, however, “notion” was also used to mean “an inclination toward, fancy for, or desire to do something” (“After being here for a week, I took a notion to leave, and accordingly did so,” 1891), a sense that sometimes was synonymous with “whim” or “strange impulse” (“She could not understand why they had got this silly notion of wearing coats and trousers in bed when nightshirts were so much easier to iron,” 1957).  Today “notion” is often used in a patronizing tone to mean “silly idea.”

This association of “notion” with one’s personal ideas or whims led to “notion” being used to mean “bright idea” or “clever invention,” which in turn led to the word “notions” being used in late 18th century America to mean “cheap, useful articles” sold in shops.  By the 19th century, “notions” in this sense had narrowed to items having to do with sewing, etc.

By the way, “sundries,” meaning “miscellaneous articles or small items” comes from the adjective “sundry” (“assorted, miscellaneous”), which is derived from the Old English “syndrig,” which is also related to our modern word “sunder” meaning “to separate.”

3 comments to Notions

  • What about the adjective “notional”? As in “notional value”, etc.?

  • Scrapbooking was my hobby when i was still studying in high school, it is a good hobby and it is fun too.,:.

  • thank you. sometimes I get obsessive and then crazed by word stuff. i am writing a book about my growing up years in brooklyn.
    in setting the scene i described the stores in the the compact neighborhood. one was a notions store and I realized i had no idea why it was called that (we called it by the owner’s name not the store’s name). so i looked it up to find what was in a notion’s store but not what such things were called notions.
    your word doctoring saved me from needing a real doctor. i’ll be writing a blog about the detective work and will give your talent both credit and quote.

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