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Terminators: Wordplays for Ideas & Insights

Sincerely Yours

April 21, 1997

When I was in seventh grade I overheard the eighth-grade teacher tell the story of "Sincere." We usually sign our letters with the word "sincerely"--but where does it come from?

She told how the word is actually a compound: sin and cere. Sin here means "without." Cere comes from cereus which means "wax."

The ancient Romans often imported marble statues from Greece. During the sea voyage statues might be cracked or broken. Unscrupulous ship captains sometimes would try to conceal the cracks with wax. So a statue that was "sincere" meant that it was as it appeared to be: intact, and without any wax to hide the crax. And so a sincere ship captain was one who didn't hide the facts.

I don't know if this is a true story, but it's a good story. It was the start of my probing into the words behind the words, and clues to meanings and nuances that may lurk there.

The word for "wax" is sometimes used as a specific epithet by biologists. One example is the common spore-forming bacterium Bacillus cereus, so named because of the waxy appearance of colonies growing on nutrient agar medium.

B. cereus is a very close relative of another species, Bacillus thuringiensis. In fact, the discerning difference between the two is that B. thuringiensis contains a plasmid that has a gene that encodes for a protein that poisons insects. This is the source of "Bt" insecticide favored by many organic farmers, and the source of the "Bt" gene that is used in genetically engineering crops such as corn, cotton and potatoes that can resist specific insect pests.

So seriously, if B. thuringiensis were "sin-Bt protein" would it sincerely be B. cereus?

Sources: Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary Tenth Edition; Chambers Murray Latin-English Dictionary by Sir William Smith and Sir John Lockwood.

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