young & old

Fast Mash

  • Old, through Old English’s alda and the Proto-Germanic *althas, derives from the Proto-Indo-European *al-, “to nourish” or “grow”
  • Some cognates include: alderman, alimentary, altitude, elder, haughty, oboe, proletarian, and prolific
  • Young, through Old English’s geong, derives from the Proto-Indo-European *ieu-, which may mean “vital force” or “youthful vigor”
  • Cognates span the Indo-European language family. from Sanskrit’s yava to the Cornish yowynk 

It’s a week into 2014. Which means I’ve morphed a couple of 3’s into 4’s, haven’t completely bailed on my resolutions, and still have Auld Lang Syne stuck in my head. The Scots’ phrase auld lang syne, that New Year’s anthem from Robert Burns’ titular poem, literally means “old long since”–or “the good old times,” as Merriam-Webster puts it best. It turns out old has had some good times, indeed, etymologically speaking–and is still around to tell them.


Old is Old English’s ald, just with some wrinkles on its vowel. It comes from the West Germanic *althas or *alða, descendant of the Proto-Indo-European *al-, a verb that makes being old, well, possible: “to grow” or “nourish.” Elder and alderman are some Germanic variations of *althas that have aged well.

In Latin, the root grew up to become alere: “to feed,” “nourish,” “raise, “support,” “nurse,” and “breast-feed,” among others.

The inchoative or inceptive form of alere, or the form showing that something is beginning or becoming, was alescere, “to be nourished” and thus “to grow up.” Affixed with that prolific prefix ad– (“to,” “toward”), Latin got adolescere, giving English both adolescsent and adult (the verb’s past participle is adultus).

You might also recognize alimentary (“dealing with nourishment,” as in the canal), exalt (read: in high esteem), and altitude, from altus, or (grown) tall. Through French evolutions, altus has given English a few less conspicuous heirs: haughty (think haute couture), enhance (from a verb originally denoting “to elevate”), and oboe.

Yes, oboe. Oboe is the Italian way of spelling the French hautbois, a compound literally meaning “high wood.” Bush and box are cognates to boisApparently, the oboe has the highest register of all the woodwinds (Online Etymology Dictionary). 

You might also be surprised by abolish. From the Latin abolere, abolish fuses ab– (another prolific prefix, “away”) and alescere to portray destruction as “away from nourishment.” Or Althea officialis, the scientific name for the marshmallow plant historically used for its healing (that is, nourishing) properties, especially in gummy, sweetened food applications that inspired today’s nutritionally empty treat.

And speaking of prolific, there is…prolific. Quite literally, the adjective is from the Latin for “making offspring.” Proliferate, proletarian (the humblest citizens in Ancient Rome, who “served the state simply by having children” to populate the Republic, the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us), Marxism’s proletariat–all from Latin’s proles, in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *pro-al, with pro– indicating “forth.” Hence, offspring as something “nourished forth.”  


Our offspring. Our children. Our youth. Our young. The ultimate fountain of young‘s youth is the Proto-Indo-European *ieu- or *yeu-, meaning “young.” The Online Etymology Dictionary sexes the root up, though, glossing it as “vital force” or “youthful vigor.” Vigorous, to be sure, if its own lexical proliferation is any measure. All the following cognates, which i take from Partridge, have stayed “young”:

  • Sanskrit, yuva
  • Avestan, yava
  • Latin, juvenis
  • Old Church Slavonic, junu
  • Lithuanian, jaunas
  • Welsh, ieuanc; Old Welsh, iouenc
  • Old Irish, oac and oc (which lives on in the obscure gallowglass)
  • Gaelic, og
  • Cornish, iouenc, iunc, yowynk, and yonk
  • Gothic, juggs
  • Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and Old High German, jung (see also the Dutch-rooted younker, joining jonc, “young,” and here, “master”)
  • Middle High German, junc
  • German, jung
  • Old Norse, ungr
  • Old English, geong and gung

The Latin juvenis has given English junior, juvenile, rejuvenate, juvenal, June (from the goddess Juno, perhaps due to her divine jurisdiction over new moons) and more recently, juvie, a colloquial term for juvenile detention centers.

And In youth, I think it is worth noting, we see at work the suffix -th, “denoting action or process” or “quality and condition” (Oxford) and hailing from a Proto-Germanic suffix *-itho and Proto-Indo-European *-ito. Bath, birth, death, growth, flith, health, length, mirth, strength, truth–youth, with yet more childhood friends.

The Young and the Restless

English etymology must be reading Macbeth. In words, what means “foul” can somehow mean “fair.” The ending is the beginning. The old are a youth culture. Words have that paradoxical way about them, don’t they? They can be so stubborn yet so flexible. Forms change. Meanings change. Words are restless. But as etymology reminds us, a word can have a core personality, if you will, that stays about it, young or old.

m ∫ r ∫


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