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Stories That Words Tell Us By Elizabeth O'Neill Characters: 14327

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

We have seen that there are great numbers of words in English which come from the Latin language. Sometimes they have come to us through Old French words borrowed from the Latin, and sometimes from the Latin words directly, or modern French words taken from the Latin. The fact that we have borrowed from the Latin in these two ways has led sometimes to our borrowing twice over from the same word. Different forms going back in this way to the same origin are known as "doublets." The English language is full of them, and they, too, can tell us some interesting stories.

Many of these pairs of words seem to have no relation at all with each other, so much has one or the other, or both, changed in meaning from that of the original word from which they come. A familiar pair of doublets is dainty and dignity, both of which come from the Latin word dignitas. Dignity, which came into the English language either directly from the Latin or through the modern French word dignité, has not wandered at all from the meaning of the Latin word, which had first the idea of "merit" or "value," and then that of honourable position or character which the word dignity has in English. Dainty has a quite different meaning; though it, too, came from dignitas, but through the less dignified way of the Old French word daintie.

The English words dish, dais, desk, and disc all come from the Latin word discus, by which the Romans meant first a round flat plate thrown in certain games (a "quoit"), and secondly a plate or dish. In Old English this word became dish. In Old French it became deis, and from this we have the English dais-the raised platform of a throne. In Italian it became desco, from which we got desk; and the scientific men of modern times, in their need of a word to describe exactly a round, flat object, have gone back as near as possible to the Latin and given us disc. It is to be noticed that the original idea of the Latin word-"having a flat surface"-is kept in these four descendants of a remote ancestor.

The words chieftain and captain are doublets coming from the Late Latin word capitaneus, "chief;" the former through the Old French word chevetaine, and the latter more directly from the Latin. Frail and fragile are another pair, coming from the Latin word fragilis, "easily broken;" the one through Old French, and the other through Modern French.

Both these pairs of words have kept fairly close to the original meaning; but caitiff and captive, another pair of doublets, have quite different meanings from each other. Both come from the Latin word captivus, "captive," the one indirectly and the other directly. Caitiff, which is not a word used now except occasionally in poetry, means a "base, cowardly person;" but captive has, of course, the original meaning of the Latin word.

Another pair of doublets, which are quite different in form and almost opposite to each other in meaning, are guest and hostile. These two words come from the same root word; but this goes further back than Latin, to the language known as the Aryan, from which nearly all the languages of Europe and the chief language of India come. Hostile comes from the Latin hostis, "an enemy;" but hostis itself comes from the same Aryan word as that from which guest comes, and so these two words are doublets in English. They express very different ideas: we are not generally "hostile" or "full of enmity" against a "guest," one who partakes of our hospitality.

Another pair of doublets not from the Latin are shirt and skirt, which are both old Germanic words. Skirt came later into the language, being from the Scandinavian, while shirt is an Old English word.

The word cross and the many words in English beginning with cruci-such as crucial, crucifix, and cruciform-the adverb across, as well as the less common word crux, all come from the Latin word crux, "a cross." The word cross first came into the English language with Christianity itself, for the death of our Lord on the cross was, of course, the first story which converts to Christianity were told. It came through the Irish from the Norwegian word cros, which came direct from the Latin. All the words beginning with cruci come straight from the Latin. Cruciform and crucifix refer to the form of a cross, and so sometimes does the word crucial. But, as a rule, crucial is used as the adjective of the word crux, which means the "test," or "difficult point," in deciding or doing something. The Romans did not use crux in this sense; but it is interesting to notice that they did use it in the figurative sense of "trouble" just as we do. This came from the fact that the common form of execution for all subjects of the Roman Empire except Roman citizens was crucifixion.

Two such different words as tavern and tabernacle, the one meaning an inn and the other the most sacred part of the sanctuary in a church, are doublets from the Latin word tabernaculum, "tent." The first comes from the French taverne, and the second directly from the Latin.

The words mint and money both come from the Latin word moneta, which was an adjective attached by the Romans to the name of the goddess Juno. The place where the Romans coined their money was attached to the temple of Juno Moneta, or Juno the Adviser. From this fact the Romans themselves came to use moneta as the name for coins, or what we call money. The word passed into French as monnaie, which is still the French word both for money and mint, the place where we coin our money. In German it became munze, which has the same meanings. In English it became mint. But the English language, as we have seen, has a fine gift for borrowing. In time it acquired the French word monnaie, which became money as the name for coins, while it kept the word mint to describe the place where coins are made.

The words bower, formerly the name of a sleeping-place for ladies and now generally meaning a summer-house, and byre, the place where cows sleep, both come from the Old English word bur, "a bower." The word flour (which so late as the eighteenth century Dr. Johnson did not include in his great dictionary) is the same word as flower. Flour is merely the flower of wheat. Again, poesy and posy are really the same word, posy being derived from poesy. Posy used to mean a copy of verses presented to some one with a bouquet. Now it stands either for verses, as when we speak of the "posy of a ring," or more commonly a bunch of flowers without any verses.

The words bench and bank both come from the same Teutonic word which became benc in Old English and banc in French. Bench comes from benc, but bank has a more complicated history. From the French banc we borrowed the word to use in the old expression a "bank of oars." From the Scandinavians, who also had the word, we got bank, used for the "bank of a river." Meanwhile the Italians had also borrowed the old Germanic word which became with them banca or banco, the bench or table of a money-changer. From this the French got banque, and this became in English bank as we use it in connection with money.

The Latin word ratio, "reckoning," has given thre

e words to the English language. It passed into Old French as resoun, and from this we got the word reason. Later on the French made a new word direct from the Latin-ration; which, again, passed into English as a convenient name for the allowance of food to a soldier. It has now a more general sense, as when in the Great War people talk of the whole nation being put "on rations." Then again, as every child who is old enough to study mathematics knows, we use the Latin word itself, ratio, as a mathematical term.

Another Latin word which has given three different words to the English language is gentilis. From it we have gentile, gentle, and genteel. Yet the Latin word had not the same meaning as any of these words. Gentilis meant "belonging to the same gens or 'clan.'" It became later a distinguishing term from Jew. All who were not Jews were Gentiles, and this is still the meaning of the word gentile in English. It came directly from the Latin. But gentilis became gentil in French; and we have borrowed twice from this word, getting gentle, which expresses one idea contained in the French word, though the French word means more than our word gentle. It has the sense of "very amiable and attractive." The last word of the three, genteel, is rather a vulgar word. It means "like gentlemen and ladies have to do," and only rather ignorant people use the word seriously.

Doublets from Latin words for the most part resemble each other in meaning and form, though, as we have seen, this is not always the case. We could give a long list of examples where both sense and form are similar, but there is only space to mention a few. Poor and pauper (a miserably poor person) both come from the Latin pauper, "poor." Story and history both come from historia, a word which had both meanings in Latin. Human and humane are both from the Latin humanus, "belonging to mankind." Sure and secure are both from the Latin securus, "safe." Nourishment and nutriment are both from the Latin nutrimentum. Amiable and amicable are both from the Latin amicabilis, "friendly."

Examples of doublets which are similar in form but not in sense are chant and cant, which both come from the Latin cantare, "to sing." Chant has the original idea, being a form of singing, especially in church; but cant has wandered far from the original sense, meaning insincere words, especially such as are used by people pretending to be religious or pious. The word cant was first used in describing the chanting or whining of beggars, who were supposed often to be telling lies; and from this it got its present use, which has nothing to do with singing.

Blame and blaspheme, both coming from the Latin blasphemare, itself taken from a Hebrew word, are not, perhaps, quite so different in sense; but blame means merely to find fault with a person, while blaspheme means to speak against God.

Chance and cadence both come from the Latin cadere, "to fall," but have very little resemblance in meaning. Chance is what happens or befalls, and cadence is movement measured by the fall of the voice in speaking or singing.

But the most interesting doublets of all are those which have neither form nor sense in common. No one would guess that the words hyena and sow, the names of two such different animals, are doublets. Both come from the Greek word sus or hus, "sow." The Saxons, when they first settled in England, had the words su, "pig," and sugu, "sow;" and later the word hyena was taken from the Latin word hyaena, itself derived from the Greek huaina, "sow."

The words furnish and veneer, again, are doublets which do not resemble each other very closely either in sound or in sense. Both come from the Old French word furnir, which has become fournir in Modern French, and means "to furnish." The English word furnish was taken direct from the French, while the word veneer, which used to be spelt fineer, came into English from a German word also borrowed from the French furnir.

No one would easily guess that the name nutmeg had anything to do with musk; but the word comes from the name which Latin writers in the Middle Ages gave to this useful seed-nux muscata, "musky nut."

It seems strange, when we come to think of it, that great English sailors like Admiral Jellicoe and Admiral Beatty are called by a title which is really the same as the name of an Arabian chieftain-Emir. Admiral comes from the Arab phrase amir al bahr, "emir on the sea."

Just the opposite to doublets which do not resemble each other are many pairs of words which are pronounced alike and sometimes spelled alike. Very often these words come from two different languages, and there are many of them in English through the habit the language has always had of borrowing freely whenever the need of a new word has been felt.

The word weed, "a wild plant," comes from an Old English word, weod; while "widows' weeds" take their name from the Old English word w?de, "garment." The word vice, meaning the opposite of virtue, comes through the French from the Latin vitium, "a fault;" while a "vice," the instrument for taking a perfectly tight hold on anything, comes from the Latin vitis, "a vine," through the French vis, "a screw." Yet another vice, as in viceroy, vice-president, etc., comes from the Latin vice, "in the place of." Angle, meaning the sport of fishermen, comes from an Old English word, angel, "fish-hook;" while angle, "a corner," comes from the Latin word angulus, which had the same meaning.

We might imagine that the word temple, as the name of a part of the head, was a metaphor describing the head as the temple of the mind, but it has no such romantic meaning. Temple, the name of a place of worship, comes from the Latin templum, "a temple;" but temple, the name of a part of the head, is from the Latin word tempus, which had the same meaning in Latin, and also the earlier meaning of "the fitting time." It has been suggested that in Latin tempus came to mean "the temple," because it is "the fitting place" for a fatal blow, the temple being the most delicate part of the head.

Tattoo, meaning a "drum beat," comes from the Dutch tap-toe, "tap-to," an order for drinking-houses to shut. But tattoo, describing the cutting away of the skin and dyeing of the flesh so common among sailors, is a word borrowed from the South Sea Islanders.

Sound meaning "a noise," and sound meaning "to find out the depth of," as in sounding-rod, are two quite different words. The one comes from the word son, found both in Old English and French, and the other from the Old English words sundgyrd, sund line, "a sounding line;" while sound meaning "healthy" or "uninjured," as in the expression "safe and sound," comes from the Old English word sund, and perhaps from the Latin sanus, "healthy."

The existence of so many pairs of words of this sort, which have the same sound and which yet come from such different origins-origins as far apart as the speech of the people of Holland and that of the South Sea Islanders, as we saw in the word tattoo-illustrates in a very interesting way the wonderful history of the English language.

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