Character (word)


Character (word)

A character (from the Greek _gr. "engraved or stamped mark (on coins or seals), branding mark, symbol") may refer to any sign or symbol.

Etymology

Greek _gr. χαρακτήρ is a nomen agentis of a verb _gr. χαράσσω with a meaning "to sharpen, to whet", and also "to engrave, to carve", from a PIE root "PIE|*g'ʰer-" "cut" also continued in Irish "gearr" and (English "gash" is an early loan ultimately from the same Greek root).Fact|date=February 2008

A _gr. χαρακτήρ is thus an "engraver", originally in the sense of a craftsman, but then also used for a tool used for engraving, and for a stamp for minting coins. From the stamp, the meaning was extended to the stamp impression, Plato using the noun in the sense of "engraved mark". In Plutarch, the word could refer to a figure or letter, Lucian uses it of hieroglyphs as opposed to Greek "grammata" ("Herm". 44)

Metaphorically, it could refer to a distinctive mark, Herodotus (1.57) using it of a particular dialect, or (1.116) of a characteristic mark of an individual. The collective noun _gr. χαρακτηριστικά "characteristics" appears later, in Dionysius Halicarnassensis.

Via Latin " _la. charactēr", Old French " _fr. caracter", the word passed into Middle English as "caracter" in the 14th century. Wycliffe (1382) has "To haue a caracter [...] in her forhedis" (bibleref|Revelation|13:16) for the mark of the beast (translating _gr. χάραγμα "imprinted or branded mark").

Grapheme

The word was used in the sense of letter or grapheme by William Caxton, referring to the Phoenician alphabet, "The Fenyces were the fyrst inuentours of caracteris dyfferencing that one fro that other, of whiche were fourmed lettres for to write" ("Eneydos" 6.25). As in Greek, the word was used especially for foreign or mysterious graphemes, such as Chinese Syriac or Runic ones, as opposed to the familiar "letters"; in particular of shorthand (in "David Copperfield" (chapter 38) sarcastically of shorthand, "a procession of new horrors, called arbitrary characters; the most despotic characters I have ever known"), and since 1949 in computing (see character (computing).

As a collective noun, the word can refer to writing or printing in general (Shakespeare's sonnet nr. 59: "Since minde at first in carrecter was done", viz. "since thought was first put in writing").

Esotericism and magic

The word in Renaissance magic came to refer to any astrological, cabbalistic or magical sign or symbol. Related is the Sacramental character of Catholic doctrine.Famously, John Dee designed his "Monas Hieroglyphica" in 1564.

In the 19th century, this sense of the word appears mainly in Romantic poetry, such as Sir Walter Scott's "Lay of the last minstrel" (1805), where "A hallow'd taper shed a glimmering light / On mystic implements of magic might; On cross, and character, and talisman," (6.17).

emiotics and epistemology

From the esoteric or mystical meanings, Early Modern learned authors abstracted a notion of "Character" as a code or hierarchical system that embodied all knowledge or all of reality, or a written representation of a philosophical language that would recover the "true names" lost in the confusion of tongues.

This idea had currency as a kind of epistemological philosophers' stone for about a century, from the mid 17th century, with Francis Lodwick (1642) and John Wilkins's "Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language" (1668), to the later 18th century and the "Encyclopédie" where in a long entry under the heading "Charactère", D'Alembert critically reviewed such projects of the past century.

Personality

From the 17th century, the term refers to a persona in a theatrical play, and from the 18th century, to a personality or individual, considered as possessor of a certain role or certain faculties, often slightly derogatory ("quite a character"), and hence an individual's peculiar traits, a personal "character" or character structure (moral character).

"Characters" is also a term for a literary genre describing such personal traits; notable examples are "The Characters" of Theophrastus, of La Bruyere, and in English, of Joseph Hall (1574-1656) and Sir Thomas Overbury.

References

*OED
*LSJ

ee also

*Glyph
*Hieroglyph


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