Sunday, May 20, 2012

germane or not germane, that is the question

This one has come up a few times lately, so I thought I might as well investigate. I know that it means something like "pertinent, on point, relevant". What I don't know is where it comes from. Is it related to German at all? Does it come from the idea of germs or germination? Do I have a Jermaine Jackson, anyone?


"Related" being the operative word up there. And though "germane" is related to "germs" and "germination", and even to Jermaine Jackson in  a distant sort of way, it isn't related to German. Probably.

Here's the deal. "Germane" comes from the Latin germanus, which means "full, own, as in one's own brother or sister". It is related to such words as genus and genre and gender through their common theorized ProtoIndoeuropean root, *gene--"to give birth or beget". At its base, then, germane means "having the same parents" (Or, apparently, grandparents. I discovered a term that has pretty much passed out of American usage, at least in my circles--the cousin-german, or first cousin. Not at all the same thing as a German cousin. Unless your cousin-german happens to actually be German.)

Before germane got to English, though, it had to make a stop in France, in the Old French word germain, which started out directly from the Latin germen, "the shoot of a plant", and came to mean "closely related". It is here that it also became a proper name, or actually two, since there is both a feminine and masculine form. The name means "brother", and became popular because it belonged to a beloved saint, St. Germain, Bishop of Paris. And for the girls, there is also St. Germaine Cousin, patron saint of those who suffer child abuse. Anyway, Jermaine Jackson, despite the spelling variation, is connected to all those little French kids through his name,and to its English cousin-german, germane.

Now, as to the maybe so, maybe not connection to the word German, well, it gets a little tricky. And it shows up in that name Germain, because though this means brother, it can also mean, well, German. The Romans are the ones who gave us both. The first attested use of the written word "Germani" was by Julius Caesar, who was referring to a group of tribes in northeastern Gaul, but exactly who these people were is not certain. One theory has them as Celtic and the name Caesar used may have been given to them by the Gauls, and possibly meant "neighbor", which makes it not so ungermane after all. (Or it could mean "noisy" or "battle-cry", in which case, never mind.)

Interestingly, the word in its most current usage comes down to us from Hamlet, from Act 5, Scene 2, where Hamlet is preparing to duel Laertes. "The phrase would be more germane to the matter if we could carry a cannon by our sides." Apparently, this is the first figurative use of a now obsolete definition, meaning "closely related", to refer to things, not people.
Thanks, Shakespeare.


  1. Thanks, Shakespeare, yes, and thanks, Seana!

  2. And thanks, Kathleen. And germane to your last post, I am pretty sure that Shakespeare was at the very opposite end of the spectrum from a psychopath.

  3. I do quite like that the most exalted work by the most exalted author in the history of our language and possibly any language begins so humbly: "Who's there?

  4. It is my favorite play ever, and you're right that is a wonderful, yet unpretentious beginning.

    I still am not sure that I entirely understand the quote I quoted, though.

  5. I've just learned that germane is also a chemical compound.

  6. Thanks, Maria. I was noticing there were some more scientific meanings, but hadn't bothered to track them down. I hadn't even heard of germanium, let alone germane.