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Etymological Embarrassables


By Anatoly Liberman

Many people have seen a dictionary of confusables before. Not only such classic near twins as affect ~ effect, principle ~ principal, lie ~ lay, and biannual ~ biennial get confused. English, it appears, is a veritable pandemonium: all words mean the same, and everything sounds like something else, thereby creating insurmountable difficulties for the unwary. Only foreigners sail merrily in these tempestuous waters, because they know that they are dealing with a maddeningly difficult language and have to learn it. They also know that, according to the most advanced linguistic theory, aliens make mistakes (which are frowned upon and have to be corrected), whereas native speakers have something called competence and at most make performance errors, a misdemeanor in comparison to felony. For example, when a student writes that he has read “many tails about Santa Clause,” no one will doubt that he is a native speaker whose performance is legitimate but perhaps needs some polishing (otherwise, this person, with whom I had a heart to heart talk in my office, turned out to be a bright prospective engineer).

In etymology, confusables are rife. This happens when we have a cluster of homonyms, for example, flag (a plant name, remembered, if at all, from the marginalia in the Book of Job, VIII: 11), flag “banner,” flag, as in flagstone, and flag, as in conversation flagged. Are they related? (The last two may be.) Is there any connection between concrete, the noun, and concrete, the adjective? (No, only the prefix con– is the same in both.) Such questions are the stuff etymologists’ dreams are made “on” (so Shakespeare, as far as the preposition is concerned). Confusables of this type are ubiquitous. But, if I am allowed to coin a word, English is full of etymological “embarrassables”: words that are certainly related, but how? How dare they belong together?

Rape and rapture. Latin rapere meant “seize, snatch away.” It is related to the adjective rapidus “rapid,” and the connection makes sense. Even closer to rapere are rapacious and the bookish noun rapine “pillage.” At one remove, we find rapt (as in rapt admiration); rapture is rapt with a suffix –ure (compare depict and picture). When we are in raptures, we are “carried away.” (Rapscallion “rascal” and rapier have nothing to do with rapere.) A similar case is ravish, a genteel synonym of rape, and the adjective ravishing (as in ravishing beauty). The ultimate source (etymon) of ravish is the same verb rapere, which in Latin seems to have had the cognate rapire. It yielded Italian rapire and Old French ravir; from France it came to England in the 13th century. Cupid and cupidity. Cupid (Latin Cupido) is the Roman counterpart of Eros, a mischievous god of love, a willful boy with a quiver full of arrows. To us, and, similarly, to the Romans, Cupido was a proper name alongside of cupido, a common noun, but when we deal with deities, the line between proper and common names is conventional. Pagan gods are personified qualities. For instance, Old Icelandic hnoss meant “treasure, woman’s ornament,” and there was a goddess called Hnoss. The great 13th-century Icelandic scholar Snorri Strurluson says: “She is so lovely that whatever is beautiful and valuable is called ‘treasure’ from her name.” Surprisingly, a man of Snorri’s intellect believed that the divine name had been coined first and the common name derived from it, though it is obvious that the order of events was reverse. In our editions, proper names are spelled with capital letters. In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, this rule did not exist, but, regardless of spelling, we understand that Hnoss is the personification of hnoss. Likewise, Cupido “Cupid” is personified desire. Latin cupidus meant “eagerly desirous” and cupiditas, an abstract noun, meant “desire,” all from the verb cupere. Cupidity narrowed its meaning and came to designate “inordinate desire for gain.” Such changes regularly occur in the history of words. We also recognize the root of cupere in concupiscence “lust.” One can wish, and wish strongly, for many things. Infant and infantry. We are again back to Latin, where infant meant “child,” literally, “unable to speak,” from the negative prefix in– and the root of the verb fari “speak.” Anyone familiar with French and Spanish history has seen the words infante and infanta more than once. Infant was synonymous with what the English called squire, a junior soldier attending on a knight, a foot soldier. The word infantry spread to several European languages from Italian. The Modern Italian for “foot soldier” is fante (without the prefix in-), and in French, fantassin corresponds to it.

An almost comic union is between dietfood” and diet “meeting, session.” This pair would not be worthy of discussion but for some well-known parallels outside English. Medieval Latin dieta meant “day’s journey; wages; work” and may have been derived from Latin dies “day,” though, more likely, Latin diaeta “course of life” was understood as a feminine past participle (of a nonexistent verb!), in some way also connected with dies, and developed as a new word. Since diet “food” refers to a prescribed way of living and thus to daily routine in taking food, some overlap in meaning between the two homonyms was possible (they became homonyms in Medieval Latin). The strongest connection between diet “meeting, assembly” and day can be seen in German, in which Tag means “day,” but, when occurring as the second part of compounds, it means assembly, as in Landtag “local assembly” and Bundestag “parliament.” Danish Rigsdag (so called until 1953) and Dutch Riksdag are adaptations of German Reichstag. Knowing the history of words helps “disembarrass” speakers, whose puzzlement over the tricks of semantic history is not only pardonable but laudable.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Mindy

    Good to hear I’m not the only one who still gets confused by “affect” and “effect”!!!

  2. John Cowan

    Martin Luther, we are told, was sentenced to death by a diet of worms.

  3. Terry Collmann

    Anatoly looks as confusables

    What, like ‘at’ and ‘as’?

  4. […] – a found an explanation of this one here, although etymologists aren’t positive that they’re […]

  5. Thomas Milo

    Dutch Riksdag should be rijksdag (no capital and with the Dutch letter double I). As a Dutch word it does not exist other than to paraphrase German Reichstag.

  6. Thomas Milo

    I hasten to add that “dag” in the sense of gathering exists/survives exclusively in de Dutch expression “Poolse landdag”, a chaotic political gathering, in an allusion to Polish history.

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