- Via French, transition comes from Latin transitiōnem, accusative of transitiō
- Transitiō is formed from transire, to go across, fusing trans (across) and īre (go)
- Preposition/prefix trans likely derives from a verb, *trare (to cross), while īre stems from prolific Proto-Indo-European *ei–
First off, I want to thank Stan Carey for his shout-out of “The Mashed Radish” on his always learned and be-learning Sentence First. Subscribe to him. Second, I want to welcome all the new followers I’ve gained as a result of it; I look forward to our community and conversation.
So, the big move has arrived. At the end of this week, my dictionaries and I will be in transition and transit from Minneapolis, MN to Laguna Beach, CA. (No, it is not healthy to talk about my dictionaries that way.) I plan to keep up with my weekly postings, but may be claiming a little wiggle room from time to time in the short future. But let’s just say that I suspect the ocean will be every bit as inspiring as the snow.
Since I otherwise can’t conjure up a better one, let’s get right to this week’s word: transition, a (now) regular enough word, if with a little more starch in its collar, but which displays some of the wonderful stuff of word origins and the English language.
As with many more academic, abstract, or technical English words, transition was taken right from Latin—in this case, transitiōnem, formed on transitiō. The -em marks the accusative case, the n functions as part of a conjugational paradigm, -iō gets affixed to the t of a participial stem, and…OK, we’re not in Latin class.
Know that all this inflection business—changing the form of words to change their grammatical function, like adding –s can mark the plural in English—is tell-tale Indo-European.
Also know that English, particularly Middle English, borrowed quite liberally from this -iō-/-iōn- structure (via French) to form all kinds of nouns of state or condition. Think, well, condition, or relation, nation, compression, depression, or connection (or connexion for my UK friends). In English, -ing, Germanic in origin, serves the same function as Latin -iō, forming verbal derivatives like talking, reading, and writing. But English—as most languages are, though perhaps to a higher degree than others—is a mutt, taking not just vocabulary but grammatical structures from other languages. Language, the great appropriator, the great opportunist.
In Latin, transitiō referred to a “crossing” or “passage,” although it could also signify switching political parties or infectious diseases, which some would way say are one and the same. Language trades so the wares of metaphor. By the 1550s, English took up the word from French (where else?), and it meant passing from one condition or state into another, much as it does today. (For the OED, 1975 marks the earliest evidence of transition as a verb.)
But there is more to anatomize in transitiō. Latin derived it from transīre, its own verb meaning “to go across.” We also get transit and transient from it. In transīre, you probably recognize trans–, a rather productive prefix in English meaning “across/over/beyond.” Transcontinental was a big word in the age of the railroads. Transgender is an important one today. And the U.S. Congress has proved itself ever intransigent in its legislative transactions.
In English, trans is a prefix; in Latin, a prefix, too, but also a preposition. For instance, trans sylvam means “beyond the woods”; hence, Transylvania. Historical linguists posit that trans evolved from a verb, possibly *trare, which simply meant “to cross.” A relative, the English preposition through, tells a similar story.
This, to me, is the true wonder of etymology and language evolution. All the little nuts and bolts that hold language together—morphemes like -ing, humble and mundane prepositions like through or across or with, articles like the—didn’t just come from nowhere. They started out as their own whole words far back enough, words with meat and muscle, thing-words and action-words. With time and usage, with the way language both gets whittled down and built up in speech, they became purely functional, their stories now invisible or inaudible, but carrying them around with them nonetheless.
The other part of transīre is īre, that essential of essential verbs, “to go.” And this is another terrific demonstration of the vigor of etymology—the way a simple sound spreads and persists and changes through time, tongue, and culture. The Online Etymology Dictionary cites a great list of the progeny of Proto-Indo-European’s *ei- (to go, walk):
- Greek eimi (I go)
- Latin īre (to go); iter (a way; think itinerary, reiterate)
- Old Irish ethaim (I go); Irish bothar (a road, blending words meaning “cow’s way”; cf. bovine)
- Gaulish eimu (we go)
- Gothic iddja (went”
- Sanskrit e’ti (goes); imas (we go); ayanam (a going, way)
- Avestan ae’iti (goes)
- Old Persian aitiy (goes)
- Lithuian eiti (to go)
- Old Church Slavonic iti (go)
- Bulgarian idea (I go)
- Russian idti (to go)
- English ion (introduced by Faraday in 1834, but we’ll save that story for another day)
That’s impressive. I’d say transition is in good company. Those ancient utterances live on, as we teach students to write more effective transitions between body paragraphs, or discuss transitioning new software systems at the office, or figure out our footing in the world as we transition from life in Minnesota to California. And while its flesh and bones may be Latinate, transition, as these examples evidence, behaves like a true English word.