Tag Archives: English

“paradise” lost

Today I learned that a “paradise” is literally an enclosure, a place of confinement. The Greek word was originally used to refer to walled game preserves in Persia.

Latin, German, and English: break it down, now.

One of the more common responses I get when I tell people that I study Latin (after “I didn’t know people still do that”) is “That’s great; it must be so much easier for you to learn other Romance languages.” Indeed, the ease with which one can pick up Spanish, French, or Italian (and also Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan) after gaining a firm footing in Latin is one of the more compelling arguments for keeping Latin programs in schools. I’ve also found that knowing Latin has made the study of German, which is not a Romance language, far easier for me than it would have been otherwise.

One skill that learners of Latin gain is to break down a new, confusing word (in Latin or in English) into components that might be more easily understood. This becomes an unconscious reflex and is very useful in studying German, which likes to make a single compound word where we would use an entire phrase in English. Flipping through my dictionary, I see die Suppenwürfelreklame, “an advertisement for soup-cubes” (die Suppe, “soup” + der Würfel, “cube” + die Reklame, “advertisement”). Perhaps a slightly more useful example is der Paarungsplatz, “mating ground,” or more literally, a “pairing-place.”

eine Suppenwürfelreklame- an advertisement for Knorr vegetable bouillon.

eine Suppenwürfelreklame

Beyond this skill, Latin vocabulary has also been extremely useful for memorizing German verbs, especially those with prefixes. Even though the German components typically do not resemble their Latin equivalent, the English translation of the German word is often composed of Latin derivatives. Confusing? I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to explain the relationship, and I thought a chart might help:

German word
English translation of German, given by dictionary German components Latin components of English translation Literal meaning of both German and English
übertragen transfer über (“over”) + tragen (“to carry”) trans (“over”) + ferre (“to carry”) “to carry over”
ausschließen exclude aus (“out”) + schließen (“to close”) ex (“out”) + claudere (“to close”) “to close out”
mitarbeiten collaborate mit (“with”) + arbeiten (“to work”) cum (“with”) + laborare (“to work”) “to work with”

It’s true, as they say, that the more languages a person knows, the easier it is to learn even more of them. The more connections our brains have between different words and ideas, the easier it is to recall that information. Latin provides a network of connections that exist alongside and behind our knowledge of English, making new language acquisition that much easier, even if the new language is not derived from Latin.

places to go 1.16.10

Lately I’ve been exploring more blogs that focus on language. A couple of short posts I’ve particularly enjoyed:

• The virtual linguist: Man – “…in Old English there were two words for a male human being: were and wapman. Both these words became obsolete after the 13th century. The only vestige of the former in modern English is the word werewolf. Were here is a cognate of Latin vir meaning man (cf virile) and of the earlier Sanskrit vira, also meaning man.”

Spanish-English Word Connections: hippocracy (hee. Does the Evil League of Evil in Dr. Horrible count as a hippocracy?)

• I also came across a site called Save The Words. I know you all are inveteratists with a traboccant love for obsolete words, so fix yourself a prandicle and spend some time with these suffarcinated delights.

success, accessories, and receding hairlines

One of my favorite things about studying Latin, ever since my first days as a freshman in high school, has been thinking about English words that seem to have nothing in common until one identifies the Latin root they share. What do success and accessories have to do with each other, at a linguistic level? What about legal proceedings and receding hairlines?

In this post I’ll focus on the Latin word cedere, which is usually defined as “to yield/withdraw/give way/allow”—basically “to go” with a sense of motion away from. English-speakers pronounce it with a hard “c”: something like “KAY-de-ruh.”

In English, we get cede and cease from this verb. Add the prefix in- and we get incessant: unyielding, ceaseless.

Why the change from “d” in cede to “ss” in incessant? Latin verbs are shown in dictionaries with their “principal parts”: different forms the verbs take that allow the reader to see potential changes in the stem. The four principal parts of today’s verb are cedo, cedere, cessi, cessus. So, some English words that derive from cedere will have a “d” in one form and an “ss” in another. One can see the “d” to “ss” shift carry into English in recede/recession.

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annihilate, decimate, and our many other words for destruction

Is there such a thing as a synonym? I seem to remember a character in Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume arguing passionately that there is not, that each word in English has its own distinct meaning and proper usage. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think that the beauty of English, as big and messy as it is, lies in having so many options and striving to choose exactly the right one for what you want to express.

For example, I hear annihilate and decimate used interchangeably, but they actually have substantially different meanings. Annihilate has the Latin root nihil (“nothing”) while decimate has the Latin root decimus (“tenth”). So to annihilate something is to reduce it to nothing; to decimate is to reduce either by 10% or to 10% of the original amount, depending on how much of a stickler one wants to be to the original meaning. The term originates in the Roman practice of punishing mutineers by killing one in ten among their ranks, but I’ve almost always heard it used to mean “to reduce by a significant amount.” It’s been used that way since the 1600s, and it’s in the OED, so it’s fine by me.

In any case, one can decimate an army, or a town, or a pie, but not, strictly speaking, an opponent at Scrabble. Though maybe one could decimate an opponent’s pride?

We have so many ways to express different shades of destruction. Destroy in fact has a sense of building in its root (Latin struo, struere, struxi, structus: “to put together, pile up, build”), like its antonym construct. Demolish has this sense, too, from Latin molior, moliri: “to build, erect, work at.” The de- prefix is just motion downwards.

Obliterate contains the Latin word littera (“letter”), giving it a literal meaning (ha!) of something like “against the letters” (the ob- prefix is often difficult to render into English), hence “to blot out, wipe out, or cancel,” as one would debts, and from there “to destroy” in the sense of “to erase from memory.” Our delete has the same root and similar original meaning.

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having a goat under your arm (and other animal expressions)

I’ve recently come across a number of humorous expressions involving animals and thought I should share. The textbook we use in my German class gives the following:

  • Schwein haben : “to be lucky” (literally “to have a pig”)
  • einen Vogel haben : “to be crazy” (literally “to have a bird”)
  • einen Kater haben : “to have a hangover” (literally “to have a tomcat”)

My favorite animal expression in English is “I’m on it like a duck on a junebug” (thanks, David Lynch). The expression “let the cat out of the bag” has always mystified me. A friend has a good story about the term “pussy-footing”– but I won’t tell it for her. I also adore “happy as a pig in a ditch” and “that really gets my goat.” Continue reading


I started to write an introductory post laying out my whole vision for this blog, but quickly realized that people would probably rather read about, well, pretty much anything else. So the topic of the first official post is: tongues. Specifically, what we call them. 

In Latin, “tongue” (both the organ and the speech it produces) is lingua and in Greek, γλωσσα (glossa) or γλωττα (glotta).  English derivatives come to mind right away: linguistics, bilingual, glossary, to gloss. The German word from which our English tongue derives is Zunge (tsoon-geh: German “z” is a “ts” sound, like the “zz” in pizza). Pronouncing each of these words slowly and attentively gives a sense of how perfectly suited they are for the task of naming this important organ.

Zunge, lingua, and tongue start out with a flick of the tip of the tongue against the upper teeth and/or that bump right behind them. From there, one must draw the tongue back, tense it up, and push the sides against the palate and upper teeth to get that “ng” sound. Try to make the “ng” sound a few times without the rest of the word. It engages the whole tongue in a way that I think is remarkably appropriate for what the word denotes.  The Greek words don’t have that “ng” sound, but the “gl” achieves something similar.

You have to use the whole tongue in order to say any of these words, in a way that you really don’t for words like mop, or happy, or sassafras . I don’t know if that makes it onomatopoeic, strictly speaking, but I like to think of it that way.