Lexical Investigations: Paragon

paragon, knife sharpeningToday’s meaning of paragon as a model of excellence has been around since the Middle French of the 1540s, but before then, this word’s history is a bit more complicated. The old Italian word paragone meant “touchstone to test gold,” as when Dino Campogni wrote “a triall or touch-stone to try gold, or good from bad” around 1324. The Greek word parakonan, on the other hand, means to sharpen or whet one thing against another. Paragon appeared in French by the 1600s with an entirely different meaning—that of a match, comparison, or equal. It is thought (but not certain) that this meaning borrowed the idea of testing something’s value from the Italian, and combined it with the idea of rubbing one thing against another from the Greek. It’s accepted that when Shakespeare’s Hamlet called man “the paragon of animals” in 1601, however, that he meant man is the perfect example of excellence among all animals, not that man is their equal. (Or that man could be used to sharpen the animals, or to test their gold!)

Popular References:
Paragon, DC Comics character since 1984, opponent of the Justice League of America and Superman
The Paragon of Comedy, TV Show, 1983
The Paragon, episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, 1963
Paragon Sports, Paragon Real Estate, etc

Relevant Quotations:
“A triall or touch-stone to try gold, or good from bad.”
—Dino Compagni (1324)

“Come lovely minion, paragon for fair,
Come follow me, sweet goddesse of mine eye.”
—Robert Greene, A Looking Glass for London and England (1594)

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 303–312 (1601)

“The volunteer architects behind the structure even planned to make it a paragon of sustainable living, with passive solar heating and a rooftop hydroponic irrigation system.”
—Emily Badger, “The Building Code Violation Behind Occupy D.C.’s Sunday Standoff,” The Atlantic Cities (2011)

Read our previous post about the word outlier.
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