Thursday, June 08, 2006

Carnival of Etymologies

[A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"]

Guess if these modern English words are related. Click to see the answers.

1. sarcasm/sarcophagus

2. human/humid

3. organic/orgasmic

4. anniversary/pervert

5. author/actor

6. kin/kind (adj.)

7. maiden/Mac

8. law/allow

9. wrath/ruthless

10. religion/sacrilege


The common element is "flesh," but it's not so obvious in the way we use each word today.

Sarcasm comes from an ancient Greek verb sarkazein "to speak bitterly, to sneer," but which literally means "to strip off the flesh." The noun behind that is sarx (genitive sarkos) "flesh," properly "piece of meat."

Sarcophagus, though it now means merely "stone coffin," originally was a particular kind of stone coffin meant to quickly decompose the body. Greek sarkophagos literally means "flesh-eating," and it was used in reference to a type of limestone quarried near Assos in Troas. It is a compound of sarx and phagein "to eat."

The Latin form of the word, shortened in Vulgar Latin to *sarcus, is the source of French cercueil, German Sarg "coffin," and Dutch zerk "tombstone."


Human is from Latin humanus, probably related to homo (genitive hominis) "man" and to humus "earth," on the notion of "earthly beings," as opposed to the gods (cf. Hebrew adam "man," from adamah "ground"). The cognate form of this ancient word in Old English was guma, which survives only in a disguised form in bridegroom.

Humid comes from Latin humidus "moist, wet," from umere "be moist." The h- in the Latin word seems to be by influence of humus "earth."


Organic comes from Greek organikos "of or pertaining to an organ," from organon "instrument." The original sense in English was "from organized living beings;" the meaning "free from pesticides and fertilizers" is first attested 1942.

Organon, which the Greeks also used for "musical instrument, organ of the body," means literally "that with which one works." It grew from the Proto-Indo-European root *werg- "to do," which is related to Greek ergon "work" and Old English weorc, the root of work.

Greek words in the same family included orgia "religious performances," which is the source of orgy.

However, Greek orgasmos "excitement, swelling" (and, specifically, "be in heat, become ripe for") has a different root. It is related to orge "impulse, excitement, anger," and comes from the Proto-Indo-European base *wrog- "to burgeon, swell with strength." Its relatives outside Greek include Sanskrit urja "a nourishment, sap, vigor," and Old Irish ferc, ferg "anger."

The sense of it became more sexually specific as it passed into French, then into English (1684). Orgasmic is attested from 1935.


Anniversary is Latin anniversarius "returning annually," from annus "year" and versus, the past participle of vertere "to turn."

Versus also came to mean "line of writing" in Latin, on the metaphor of "turning" from one line to another, as a plow turns in the furrows of a field.

The Proto-Indo-European base is *wer- "to turn, bend." Among the modern descendants of this ancient family of words are the -ward in words like toward; Old English wyrd "fate, destiny," literally "what befalls one" (which has come to us with a twisted meaning as weird); Sanskrit vartate "turns round, rolls;" Russian vreteno "spindle, distaff;" Lithuanian verciu "to turn;" Greek rhatane "stirrer, ladle;" German werden "to become" ("to turn into"), Welsh gwerthyd "spindle, distaff;" and Old Irish frith "against."

Pervert as a noun in the psychological sense of "one who has a perversion of the sexual instinct" is attested from 1897 (in Havelock Ellis), and originally it was used especially of homosexuals. But earlier the noun meant "one who has forsaken a doctrine or system regarded as true, apostate," a usage attested from the 17th century.

The noun comes from the verb pervert, which somes from Latin pervertere "to corrupt, turn the wrong way, turn about," a compound of per- "away" and vertere "to turn."


Even though in Middle English their forms were even more similar: Author was autor.

Author, when it first appeared in English circa 1300 (as autor), meant "father." It comes, via Old French auctor, from Latin auctor, which means "enlarger, founder," literally "one who causes to grow." It's an agent noun from the verb augere "to increase, make big, enlarge, enrich."

Author's meaning "one who sets forth written statements" is attested from c.1380. The -t- changed to a -th- on the mistaken assumption of a Greek origin.

The Proto-Indo-European base of the Latin word is *aug- "to increase." It has relatives in Sanskrit ojas- "strength;" Lithuanian augu "to grow," aukstas "high, of superior rank;" Greek auxo "increase;" Gothic aukan "to grow, increase;" and Old English eacien "to increase."

Other modern words descended from Latin augere include auxiliary, augment, auction ("a sale by increase of bids"), and perhaps augur.

Actor, too, had a different sense than presently when it came into English in the 14th century. It meant "an overseer, a plaintiff." It comes from Latin actor "an agent or doer," a word formed from the stem of the verb agere "to do, set in motion, drive, urge, chase, stir up."

Actor in the sense "one who performs in plays" is first attested in English in 1581.

Latin agere comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *ag- "to drive, draw out or forth, move." Among its relatives are Greek agein "to lead, guide, drive, carry off," agon "assembly, contest in the games," and agogos "leader."


Kin is Old English cyn "family, race, kind, nature," from Proto-Germanic *kunjan (source of German kind "child"), from the Proto-Indo-European root *gen- "to produce."

The adjective kind is Old English gecynde "natural, native, innate." The original sense is "with the feeling of relatives for each other," and it comes from the same source as kin.


Maiden is Anglo-Saxon mæden, a diminutive of mægð, mægeð "maid," from Proto-Germanic *magadinom "young womanhood, sexually inexperienced female" (a Modern German diminutive from the same root produced Mädchen "girl, maid").

This is a Germanic feminine variant of the Proto-Indo-European base *maghu- "youngster of either sex, unmarried person."

Mac as a casual, generic term of address for a man comes from the Irish and Gaelic mac, from Old Celtic *makko-s "son." It was a common prefix in Scottish and Irish names, hence its use generally from the early 19th century for a Celtic Irishman. It is a cognatr of the root for maiden.


Law is Old English lagu, a word the Anglo-Saxons took from the vikings, who had formed it from a collective plural of the Old Norse noun lag "layer, measure, stroke," literally "something laid down or fixed." It comes from the same root as the English verb lay.

Law replaced the Old English words for "law," which were æ and gesetnes, the latter of which had the same sense development as law. The same pattern underlies statute, from Latin statuere, German Gesetz "law," and Lithuanian istatymas, from istatyti "set up, establish."

Allow came into Middle English from Old French alouer "approve," from Latin allaudare, a compound of ad- "to" and laudare "to praise."

In Old French this was confused and merged with alouer "assign," from Latin allocare. From the first word came the sense "permission based on approval;" from the second the meaning preserved in allowance "a limited portion or sum (usually of money or food)."


Wrath is Anglo-Saxon wræððu "anger," from wrað "angry," literally "tormented, twisted.” The Proto-Indo-European source is *wreit- "to turn," which relates it to writhe and wreath. The root is *wer- "to turn, bend," which makes it a distant relative of pervert.

Ruthless was formed in Middle English from reuthe "pity, compassion," which itself was formed from reuwen "to rue" on the model of true/truth, etc.

Rue "feel regret" is a blend of two Old English verbs, hreowan "make sorry, grieve," and hreowian "feel pain or sorrow."

And, yes, ruthful once was a word, but it has fallen from use since the late 17th century.


Probably not, anyhow.

Religion comes from Latin religio "respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods," which, according to Cicero, was derived from relegare "to go through again, read again," from re- "again" and legere "to read."

However, many modern writers connect it with religare "to bind fast" (the root of rely), via the notion of "place an obligation on," or "bond between humans and gods."

Another possible origin is religiens "careful," the opposite of negligens.

Sacrilege is properly "the crime of stealing what is consecrated to God," and the -ri- and -le- in the middle of the word, which make it look superficially like religion belong to different components.

The Latin source is the phrase sacrum legere "to steal sacred things," from sacrum "sacred object" and legere "take, pick up," also, metaphorically, "to read." The second element is related to lecture.

So, if Cicero is right, they are related, but modern opinion tends to regard this theory as folk etymology.