I’m no linguist. Yet it occurs to me that our discussion of anonymity might benefit from a little phonological injection.
The noun “anonymous” comes from the Greek anonymos, or “without name.”
But—as the literary scholar Anne Ferry recounts far more thoroughly than I—the English adjective itself was only born in the late 16th century. Then, and for centuries, the word was used sparingly. And its meaning was limited: used to describe a nameless piece of writing or an unnamed author.
It was only in the twentieth century that we got the corresponding noun: “anonymity.”
Linguists will point out that adjectival nouns—like nouns formed by slapping the suffix ity onto an adjective—are special beasts. Ferry writes that the seemingly humdrum acquisition of an ity can be the marking of much broader cultural shifts:
“… when such nouns are formed, something new in the language “has come into existence which did not exist before”… These nouns, then, can be powerfully compact signals of cultural changes… Like vast numbers of other words englished in the sixteenth century, anonymous was imported to serve a newly felt need.”
That need was to establish authorship concretely, where before the presence/absence of a named author was inconsequential. Importantly, this took place amidst a boom in the publication of anonymous poetry volumes in Europe.
But to be sure, the 20th century lexical shift—adjective —> noun—also spurred a substantive one. The meaning of the words loosened. “Anonymous” and “anonymity” spread from the confines of authorship to the fluffier domain of identity.
Here’s where our next discussion will take off.