• infantry •
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: The foot-soldiers in the military
Notes: I thought we needed to look at this Good Word in honor of that branch of the military that is taking the brunt of the actions in Afghanistan. We also need an answer to that age-old question: "When was the infantry made up of infants?" If an infantocracy is the rule of babies (as my grandchildren rule my family) and infantolatry is the worship of babies (of which I must confess my guilt), then an infantry should be a collection of babies. In fact, the word has been used jocularly in this sense.
In Play: Although it is not a real meaning of the word, the use of this Good Word to refer to infants collectively is not unheard of. The Oxford English Dictionary reports this sentence from 1863: "There was one A.B.C. book, or pretty nearly one, for the whole 'infantry' of the country." Today's word is best known, however, in the expression, "If all else fails, call in the infantry." They are, historically and by reputation, the last line of defense.
Word History: So, you have wondered when the infantry was composed of infants. It is a good question, since this Good Word should refer to a collection of babies. In fact, however, it comes from French infanterie, a word the French borrowed from Old Italian infanteria, which was a collection of infante "youth, foot soldier". The Italian word came down from Latin infan(t)s "infant"; its meaning rusted a bit in the river of time. Now it really gets interesting. The Latin infans (infant- with endings) was a derivation from in- "not" + fans "speaking", the present participle of fari "to speak". For those of you who doubt that humans are distinguished from other species by speech, harken: even the ancestors of the Romans thought so.
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