August 28, 2013

Case File #013.08.28: IMP

Believe it or not, the noun imp doesn't have the fiendish pedigree that its current meanings might suggest. It is a descendant of the Late Latin verb imputare, meaning “to graft (onto),” which is itself the progeny of the Greek emphuein (sometimes transliterated as emphyein), meaning “to implant.” When the Anglo-Saxons adopted the Latin verb, they kept its meaning but changed the spelling to impian, and from that they formed the noun impa and used it to mean “a graft or young shoot.” Impa passed into Middle English as impe, but sometime towards the end of the fourteenth century, the word's meaning shifted from “a young shoot” to “a child of a noble family.” English speakers in the early sixteenth century must not have thought too highly of the children of nobility, however, because they're the ones who changed the spelling of impe to the now familiar imp and used it to mean “a small demon” or “a child of the Devil,” and it wasn't until the middle of the seventeenth century that the noun took on the additional and somewhat softer sense of “a mischievous child.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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