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I found the following definition of "nostrum" online:

A secret elixir, ingredients being secret and only known by the Maker, and it is a cure-all to mankind.

I want to discover the true meaning of this word. Any ideas would be appreciated and helpful!

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    I edited this question pretty heavily, since the narrative details do not contribute to (and, in my opinion, detract from) the question, which is worthwhile.
    – brianpck
    May 29, 2019 at 17:51
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    Would you mind adding the link where you found that definition, by the way? It would be helpful to look at any examples or sources they list.
    – Draconis
    May 30, 2019 at 3:11

1 Answer 1

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In Latin, nostrum is a first person genitive plural pronoun (specifically a partitive one), or a first person plural neuter singular possessive. In normal-person language, its English equivalent would be "of us", as in "one of us", or "ours".

Historically, the stem is from a Proto-Indo-European "enclitic" pronoun: a pronoun form that can't stand on its own and joins onto the word before it (like how 's isn't a word on its own in English, it has to attach to something, like cat's).

As best we can tell, the Proto-Indo-European enclitic word for "us" (first person plural accusative) looked something like *nōs, and this is also what we see in Latin. This was then augmented with a possessive suffix *-tero-¹ to give a form *nōs-tero-s. This evolved into the Classical Latin adjective noster, nostra, nostrum "our".

(¹) This prefix fossilized before Classical times in Italic, but we can see its remnants in Ancient Greek hēméteros "our", Ancient Greek hyméteros "your (pl)", Latin uter "either", Latin neuter "neither", English "whether", etc. It's related to the comparative suffix in adjectives.

In Classical times, genitive forms of the adjective then got borrowed for the pronoun: nostrī (from the genitive singular, "of our thing") is used when it's acting like an object, as in "force of will", and nostrum (from the genitive plural, "of our things") is used when you're talking about a part of something, as in "fragments of sentences".

So the "oldest" meaning—as in, the first meaning of the form nostrum—was "our [thing]", which then led to "of us". The first meaning we can reconstruct for any individual part was nōs, "us".

The meaning "our [thing]" is what led to the modern English usage ("something that makes you feel better but has no real effect; placebo, snake oil"). The idea was a contrast between "our thing" (the thing we common folk do) and "their thing" (the thing the doctors tell us to do); nowadays, it's mainly a pejorative word (=indicates a bad quality). For example, cutting taxes is often called a conservative nostrum, in the political sphere: it's an easy talking point that makes the public happy, but on its own it doesn't actually fix the underlying problems (the budget that needs reworking).

Sources: Klein, Handbook of Comparative and Historical Indo-European Linguistics; Beekes, Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction.

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  • Part 1 of 2. Yes, the introductory reference speaks to a modern aberration of what I believe I have found as the original meaning: Nos = Nas/nasa/na= our, us, we, on, at, into,of, belonging to, to join, approach, copulate. Proto-Indo-European. Correct meaning: actions belonging to the wisdom, knowledge of a singular collective consciousness as a bend/crook in time-space. Trum/trom=suffix=noun='agent of an action' Interpretation: Human/Mass/Universal Consciousness formed (as a or distortion in Time-Space in Einsteins' Theory of Relativity), from Source. May 30, 2019 at 2:59
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    @DeviNostrum I think you're mixing up your languages a bit. The AHD's appendix (besides using a somewhat outdated model of PIE) lists English words descended from the PIE root, which don't necessarily have anything to do with the original meaning. Similarly, -trum is a Latin suffix, not a PIE one. Most of the Sanskrit words you've cited come from unrelated roots, and synonyms for English "distortion" don't really have anything to do with the Latin pronoun nōs.
    – Draconis
    May 30, 2019 at 3:08
  • @DeviNostrum Basically, if you want to find the original/earliest meaning, you have to look at the earliest languages we have evidence of (Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, etc), then compare and reconstruct from there. That's how Beekes and Klein came up with the data I've cited in my answer. Looking at modern English words won't be particularly informative, because they've had millennia and millennia to diverge from their PIE source.
    – Draconis
    May 30, 2019 at 3:10
  • I'd be interested in seeing when nostrum, alone, started taking on this meaning. Certainly that wasn't the case in Latin, without some additional context?
    – brianpck
    May 30, 2019 at 14:00

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