Sunday, March 29, 2009



When did “momento” become a common, if not accepted spelling of “memento”?

The word is not related to “moment”, but comes from the Latin memento, the command “Remember!” In English, a memento was originally a token to remind one of something that must be remembered (compare mnemonic, which comes to us from Greek). The card that your doctor gives you with the date and time of your appointment written on it is a memento, in the older sense. Nowadays, we use it as a synonym for “souvenir” (from the French verb souvenir, “to remember”), a keepsake that serves as a reminder of the past, rather than of the future.

But it’s most certainly spelled “memento”.

I remember noting that, when I first heard Billy Joel’s 1974 song “Souvenir” (from the Streetlife Serenade album), in which he clearly pronounces the word with an “o” sound (though I don’t know how he writes it):

A picture postcard, a folded stub,
A program of the play
File away the photographs
Of your holiday.
And your momentos will turn to dust,
But that’s the price you pay.
For every year’s a souvenir
That slowly fades away.

But then there’s the excellent and interesting movie Memento, which spells it right. The movie is about a man who has trauma-induced damage to his short-term memory, and it’s done with the scenes shown in reverse order so that we, as he, don’t “remember” how we got where we are.

And I saw an advertisement that spells it “momento”, the other day, which prompted me to write this.

For what it’s worth, a Google search on “memento” gives about 8 million hits, while “momento” yields 245 million. That would seem to be a 30-to-1 demonstration that spelling is not the Internet’s long suit. But also, the “o” list includes a large number of businesses and domain names that are spelled that way, as well as hits from web pages in other languages (“momento” means “moment” in Spanish and Italian, for example). So I’m not sure what the Google stats tell us.

Richard Dawkins’s coinage meme (pronounced “meem”), by the way, is related not to memory, but to mimicry; it comes from the Greek mimema something that’s imitated.


Call me Paul said...

Memento is one of my favourite movies. I often use the word momento when telling people I'll be with them shortly.

May said...

I think that the explanation lies in that fact that you pointed out, that "the o list includes hits from web pages in other languages (“momento” means “moment” in Spanish and Italian, for example)."

MEMENTO MORI was the first sentence that came to my mind. It is always an appropriate thing to remind to people.