‘What’s so funny?’ asked my husband, accusingly, as I made an amused noise while relaxing with a copy of the Summa Theologiae. There aren’t all that many jokes in Thomas Aquinas’s survey for beginners in the field of theology. As it’s such a large field, his summary runs to 1,800,000 words. (Incidentally, just as Dan Brown went wrong in his book title by referring to Leonardo as ‘Da Vinci’, so it would be against preferred usage to call the theologian ‘Aquinas’ rather than Thomas.)
Anyway, it always makes me smile to think of Thomas’s exasperation with a 13th-century university teacher, David of Dinant, who stultissime posuit Deum esse materiam primam, ‘most stupidly made out God to be prime matter’. If that doesn’t sound side-splittingly funny to us, it might be because of a confusion in English over the meaning of potential.
We tend to say someone has potential when he has the power to do things. In the Aristotelian metaphysics of Thomas, prime matter was merely potential in quite a different way: it had no power to be anything at all, but needed the formal, active aspect of things to give it actuality of any kind. You don’t find a lump of prime matter lying around; it has no existence without being actualised.
Anyway, having explained Thomas’s little joke to death, I found a similar one in the Oxford English Dictionary, which in its second edition runs to 59 million words. Helpmeet is the head-word. ‘A compound absurdly formed,’ the OED says, snorting with amused derision, ‘by taking the two words help meet in Genesis ii. 18, 20 (“an help meet for him”, i.e. a help suitable for him) as one word.’
You can’t help laughing, but such is the irrational impetus of linguistic change. The Authorised Version of the Bible, with help meet for Adam’s suitable helper, came out in 1611, and by 1673 a character in Dryden’s Marriage a-la-Mode could say: ‘If ever woman was a help-meet for man, my Spouse is.’
The less absurd word helpmate first appeared later than help-meet and its form is thought to be influenced by it. I find it hard to use either, particularly with reference to my husband.