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An etymologist looks at habits and customs

By Anatoly Liberman


Habit, in addition to the meaning that is universally known (“settled disposition of mind and body”), can also designate “apparel,” even though in restricted contexts, such as monk’s habit or riding habit.  At first sight, these senses do not belong together, and yet they do.  The word is, of course, a “loan” from French.  (I have mentioned more than once that linguistic loans are permanent, for they are never returned, except when, for example, an ancient Germanic, that is, Franconian word traveled to Old French—note the similarity of Franconian and French—and then returned to English or more rarely to German so changed that even philologists sometimes have trouble recognizing the prodigal son.)  Both Latin habitus and its continuation Old French habit already combined the two meanings retained in English; English only borrowed both.

Since habitus was the past participle of habere “to have,” it could refer to almost anything that was “had,” including dress and mental makeup.  Less predictable is the meaning of Latin habitare “to have in permanent possession, keep,” whence “to stay put; dwell,” from which English has, again via French, inhabit and habitatHabitare is the frequentative form of habere.  A frequentative verb describes a regularly occurring action: for example, we can wrest an object from an opponent’s grip and wrestle continually with a problem: wrestle is frequentative, as opposed to wrestHabitat is a curious bookish word that surfaced in English only in the 18th century.  Those who know some Latin will immediately see that habitat is the 3rd person singular of habitare, that is, “he dwells.”  Here I cannot do better that quote The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology: “…derived from its use in [Latin descriptions of] floras and faunas to introduce the natural place of growth or occurrence of a species (e.g. ‘Common Primrose.  Habitat in sylvis’ [grows in woods].”  Thus, a Latin verb was transformed into an English noun.  Inhabit goes back to Latin inhabitare, literally “indwell.”

Some other derivatives and borrowings with the same root, such as the legal term habendum, the phrase habeas corpus (both pure Latin), habitual, habituate, and habitué, hardly deserve our attention.  But it is worthy of mention that French, like Spanish and Italian, lost initial h quite early in its history.  When we see Spanish hay or Italian ho, we know that h is a graphic symbol devoid of phonetic value.  French borrowings have taught us to treat h- with caution.  Engl. hour, ultimately from Latin hora, is a homonym of our (the Spanish cognate is still spelled hora, like French heure, but the Italian for hour is ora!).  Engl. habit is the product of medieval and Renaissance scholarship: the learned, who took themselves too seriously, loved to spell English words etymologically and sometimes suggested such silly variants as abhominable because they derived the adjective from ab and hominem, while in fact it is related to omen.    Later the written image of habit, humble, and so forth affected the way they were pronounced.  Fluctuations are still possible. Herb is herb in England but ‘erb in American English, in which Herb is only a name, and it seems that few people pronounce habitué without initial h (though it is a recent “loan” from French). In any event, those who write an historic event and an hotel should not be imitated, for whether it is good or bad, English speakers do not say ‘otel and ‘istory.  And now comes the denouement of this story.  Latin had the adjective habilis “easy to hold, handy; manageable, fit,” an obvious derivative of habere (Modern French habile means “clever”).  From it, via Old French, English got able.  The by now familiar attempts at Latinizing this word (and also ability) resulted in the restitution of h- in pronunciation, but by the 18th century the h-less forms had won out.  Hardly anyone who has not studied the history of English will guess that habit and able are traceable to the same Latin root.

A range of seemingly distant meanings we observe in habit can also be seen in the etymological doublets custom and costume.  Like habit, both words were taken from French.  Their beginning is the accusative of the Latin noun consuetudo “habit, custom; intimacy,” that is, consuetudenem, from the verb consuescere “to accustom (oneself),” from “to make (something) one’s own.”  Consuetude can still be found in English dictionaries, while its antonym desuetude (in to fall into desuetude “to be discontinued, to be no longer in use”) is a bookish word rather than an apparition from the past.  Old French had custome, costume, and coustume; hence Engl. custom.  It will be seen that the second of the three Old French spellings listed above coincides with Modern Engl. costume.

Costume is an 18th-century word in English.  At that time it meant “manners and customs proper to a time and place,” so almost the same as custom, but the sense was somewhat narrower.  Here we run into a story of words “loaned” and “returned.”  In the 17th century, costume made its way into Italian, where it acquired stress on the last syllable (costumé), attested as late as 1740, and retained only one sense of the French word, namely “a proper way of behavior, dressing, etc.”  Diderot and Voltaire still used costume that way.  Costume existed almost like a term of painting and referred to realistic portrayal in works of art. The sense “costume, garment” was first recorded in written French only in 1798.  It probably owes its existence to Italy, where the word had wide currency in theater life.  And of course there are French coutume “habit, custom” (not “costume”!) and habitude, its close synonym, “habit, custom, practice, use.”  Engl. habitude “usual custom; habit; wont” is rare and disconcertingly bookish.

In all definitions, habit and custom are given as though they meant the same thing, but they are not.  Anyone who habitually pays customs will agree.  Among the Germanic languages only English has Romance words for “habit” and “custom.”  From Gothic to Old Norse, including Old English, we find cognates of Modern German Sitte.  Modern English lost it.  This fact is neither sad not exhilarating.  It simply needs to be mentioned.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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2 Responses to “An etymologist looks at habits and customs”
  1. Tulletilsynet says:

    The point about verb “habitat” becoming English noun “habitat” is very nice.

    But the “habitus” that our “habit” comes from is not the past participle of habere. “Habitus” is how the dictionary look-up form of the p.ppl. of “habere” is spelled, true; but the ancestor of “habit” is a plain old noun, a fourth-declension verbal-derived one that has only a couple of inflectional forms (nominative and accusative singular) in common with the p.ppl.

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