*sekw- (part ii)

Last post, we saw how *sekw-, a Proto-Indo-European root for “follow,” makes for a surprising connection between such words as soccersectarian, and second. This root still has some tricks up its sleeve, though, for it weaves the thread between medieval fabrics…

…and the classic board game Clue.

One of the many iterations of Clue’s lustily lethal Miss Scarlet. Image courtesy of readtapestry.com.

Scarlet has many associations: letters, fevers, pimpernels, Johansson’s, cardinals, royalty. But I don’t that textiles are one we typically make. At least anymore.


The word scarlet is from the Old French escarlate, which, in turn, is handed down from Medieval Latin’s scarlatumBoth forms named did name scarlet as a color, but they originally referred to fabrics and cloths that were often dyed this vivid color. In his discursive dictionary of English word origins, Jordan Shipley notes:

[English] “scarlet” is roundabout from Arabic, which had borrowed [Latin] ‘sigillatum’ to apply to a shorn cloth, which might be blue, green, or brown as well as the brilliant red that survived in the word because it was the “the king’s color.”

The Arabic Shipley refers to is siqillat (variously transliterated) and referred to rich cloth. More specifically, Ezra Klein defines the Arabic siqillat as “tissue adorned with seals” and Eric Partridge offers “a fabric decorated with seals.” Many etymologists see the Persian saqirlat (also variously transliterated) as an intermediary vehicle between Latin and Arabic.

The Latin sigillatum he refers to means “adorned with little figures” or “patterns in relief,” literally meaning “sealed.” It is a diminutive form of signum, “sign,” “seal,” “figure,” or “symbol,” among other meanings. The English derivatives of signum are legion: assignmentsignaldesignatesignature, significantensign, and consign, among so many other active words and forms. Ernest Weekley offers this tidbit on sign: “Earliest sense as verb as to mark with the cross, and most of our ancestors ‘signed’ their letters in the same way, instead of ‘subscribing’ their names.”

For sign, all signs point back to (OK, the best signs we know of point back to) that Proto-Indo-European *sekw-. The literal interoperation of signum is offered as “mark to be followed” or “standard to be followed.” Which leads us to *sekw-, or, more specifically, a suffixed form of *sekw-no.

Sign, Sealed, Delivered

Embroidered patterns? Brilliant colors? These were expensive and labor-intensive, so it’s no surprise that scarlet became associated with nobility. But the source of the dye might be a bit humbling, as the sources of many dyes are. Scarlet was obtained from a dye known as kermes, named for the insect named for the oak tree it inhabited. More specifically, as Wikipedia puts it, the dye is “derived from the dried bodies of female bodies of insects.” This kermes–likely originating from a Sanskrit word for “worm”–is the source of other luxurious English color words crimson and carmine. Speaking of worms, vermilion, another brilliant red hue, is from the Latin vermiculus, “little worm,” named for the cochineal insect the dye was obtained from.

But how do we account for this Latin to Arabic and back, if that indeed be the (still hypothetical) case? Trade, linguistic and cultural contact, luxury textiles, and metonymy, a figure of speech using a salient feature of an object to name it (like a tongue for a language). So, perhaps the Latin sigillatus somewhere in Asia Minor was used of fine, embroidered textiles, was borrowed by speakers of Persian and neighboring Arabic speakers, who applied it to the fine textiles, siqillat in some form or another, and somewhere along the way the colors of the rich cloths became defining features, with opulent scarlet jumping out due to royalty reasons, the name gradually receding from the cloth to the color, making its way back into Medieval Latin as scarlatum, reshaped by the Latin’s daughters, and sticking around in English as scarlet after all these many years. Hypothetical, y’know?

Weaving It All Together

The Latin sign pushed out the native English word for it, represented by the Old English tacen and cognate to the word “to teach.” And, in its own singular way, a poetic passage manages to weave all our concerns here together: In Arthurian tales, the maiden Elaine gives Lancelot a token (as was the chivalrous wont) of her love, a “sleeve of scarlet, broidered with great pearls,” as Tennyson versifies it in his famed Idylls of the King. He wears it during a jousting tournament, but only because Guinevere is there. Her love unrequited, Elaine later dies of a broken heart, and she is floated down the Thames back to Camelot, a story also inspiring Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, a Miss Scarlet in her own, very, very non-Clue way.

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*sekw- (part i)

What could the World Cup possibly have in common with the conflict raging on in Iraq? Screens have been streaming soccer and headlines have been screaming sectarian, and both words, unlikely as their connection may seem, ultimately go back to the Proto-Indo-European root *sekw

Consequential Social Sects

In soccer, we saw university slang at work on association. If we it strip all back, we’re left with socius, a Latin word meaning “companion,” “ally,” and most literally, as we will see, “follower.” SocietySocial? I think you can see how they follow. And “follow” indeed, for behind this socius is what is also behind Latin’s sequi, a verb meaning “to follow.”

A blockbuster sequel, a dire consequence, the subsequent effects, an unusual sequence of events–all of these follow from Latin’s verb for “follow.”

Another form of the verbs–secutus–sticks around in Engliish’s consecutive, execute, persecute, and prosecute, all featuring prefixes and metaphors hard at work. Obsequious, too, features the root, from the Latin for “to comply.”  Sequester started out as a “trustee,” “agent” or “go-between,” particularly in financial senses. And from the root’s French fashioning, we get pursuepursuitsue, and suit–both what you might wear and what you might file in court.

From an earlier form of this secutus Latin also had secta, a “path” (something followed), “method,” “school of thought,” and “way of life,” inter alia. Hence, a sect. During the English Commonwealth in the mid-1600s, Presbyterians and Independents were referred to as “sectarians” based on their competing notions of Puritan church organization, which is when we first see the word sectarian. This was the point in every history classroom where you either got really, really into English history or really, really lost by all the power changes (me).

But perhaps I should have first mentioned second, from the Latin secundus, a very productive word meaning “following,” “next,” and “favorable.” No, in English, we don’t say twoth, we say second. Such a borrowing might seem jarring, but this is an intrinsic quality of English–of language. Indeed, this intrinsic is from Latin’s intrinsecus, meaning “on the inside,” joins intra- (“within”) and secus, “alongside.” Its counterpart, of course, is extrinsic, from extrinsecus, “on the outside.” It features exter (think extra, “outward,” “outside”).

Alas, those glittery, scintillating sequins are not related. Those sequins are from French’s rendering of the Italian zecchini, a medieval Venetian gold coin, or ducat. It comes from Italian’s zecca, “mint,” in turn from the Arabic sekkah, a “die for coining.” Such a die is a metal rod that strikes one of the faces of a coin.


Socioussequisectasecundus–all of these display Proto-Indo-European’s *sekw- at work. A warning: Technical grammar stuff is ahead, but it may give you a refresher on why words take different forms.

Recall that Proto-Indo-European was a very inflected language. Inflected? Stems took on endings to change words’ meanings and functions. It’s very simplified now in English, but we still see it in I sing vs. he sings. That s is important: it signals a particular meaning and function, specifically respect to person, number, and tense.

Words also changed their vowels to change meaning and function: I sing, I sang, I have sung. English irregular verbs preserve this once very active system of vowel change called ablaut. *Sekw- changed its vowel and added a suffix to become *sokw-yo. And the core vowel of Proto-Indo-European, scholars have proposed, was the short e, and this change from e to o in its grammar was an essential one.

We’ll have to follow up with *sekw-, though, for it has produced some other surprising derivates.

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The word goal–or should I say, “Goooaaalll!”–is getting millions of fervent football fans on their feet as the World Cup plays on. Off the field, we set them in the office, we set them in the classroom, we set them in life. But, for as much as we are seeking goals in all of our activities, the origin of goal has proven hard to reach.

In the early 1500s, we see evidence of goal‘s sports senses: the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology cites “terminal point of a race” and, concerning football, “posts through which the ball is driven.” For the latter, FIFA gets a bit more specific:

Wait for it…Wait for it…Goooaaalll!

 But why goal?


We’re not certain, but the best shot we can take is the Middle English gol, a “boundary” or “limit.” It is recorded once in the religious poetry of one, William of Shoreham, around 1315-1320, preserved in a single manuscript in the British Museum:

A stanza in the seventh (of seven) of Shoreham’s Christian, didactic lyrical poems. This stanza appears in a section themed: “God is present everywhere, in everything.” Screenshot from an ebook digitized by Google (Dr. Konath’s 1902 edition by Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co.)

Some of the manuscript’s spellings seem a bit idiosyncratic, even for a time before the standardization of spelling. And I’m certainly no scholar of Middle English. So forgive me my imperfect, prose approximation of the text:

Though he (God) does not have an end nor therefore a limit,

yet is whole over everything,

without doubt,

Not one part here, another there,

one great body, as it were,

that has gone over all.

This gol has proven elusive. But first, why do we not have any more evidence? The OED suggests that its “rustic” place in sport eluded its place in literature–and therefore early written documentation.

An Old English *gal has been proposed to mean “barrier” or “obstacle” on the basis of gælan, “to hinder.” But there’s no record of this *gal in Old English nor any sound Germanic cognates. Perhaps, others have suggested, that it is a liberal use of gale, a Middle English term for “way.” Old Norse presents geil, a “narrow valley” or “glen,” surviving dialectically as gill in the northerly reaches of the UK, but its connection to goal seems extremely tenuous, at best. French has gaule for “pole,” but semantically, phonologically, and historically this has many holes as an origin for goal. We don’t get to talk about Albanian often, but it is an Indo-European language, and, as far as all my sources are concerned, Wiktionary is alone in citing ngel as a cognate to goal. In Albanian, ngel means “to remain.”

Weekley offers the Latin meta for a parallel sense development. It also meant “boundary” and “limit,” but came to mean a “marker for measuring a lap at a racetrack,” the “conical turning-posts” at either end of the track at an Ancient Roman circus. As with the English goal, this Latin meta went on as a metaphor for a “goal,”  and it is easy to see how that which marks something off can become that which we get set on our marks for.

We many not know its “origin,” but its current use–and importance–in (American) English-speaking culture certainly makes up for that. Sports and achievement are active players on the field of our language and our values, and perhaps goal epitomizes the centrality of these metaphors in our culture. But, when we become so accustomed to reaching goals and scoring goals, it can be rallying to be reminded that, as with goal, we don’t know everything, we can’t answer everything. To be reminded of our own boundaries, our own limits.

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Fast Mash

  • According to the OED, soccer originates in 1875 at Oxford University, but borrowed from Rugby School, as university/school slang for “association football,” named for the Football Association that first codified universal rules for football in England
  • The slang is called the Oxford -er, which abridged a word an added –er; other examples include rugger for “rugby,” footer for “football,” ekker for “exercise,” and memugger for “memorial”

With 32 national teams competing on the pitch and millions of fans rooting them on, the World Cup is a truly global event, rallying behind the great, border-breaking banner that is football. Except for that pesky soccer. The term, of course, is primarily used in North American English, though has currency in South Africa and other countries, like the Philippines, where English is spoken. Its place in seems Australia mixed, if I am judge (and don’t let me be judge). But before you cry out “American exceptionalism,” you might want to know how thoroughly English the word is in origin.


It’s a well-known story. In the middle of the 19th-century, English schools and universities were playing various forms of football, each with their own “house rules.” By the time young men left their public schools for university, they were all speaking different dialects on the field, to so to speak. To address this, Cambridge developed its own official rules in 1848, and Sheffield later in the 1850s. But these rules were still school-exclusive or regional. So, in 1863, 11 representatives from different schools and clubs met at the Freemason’s Tavern in London to form the Football Association (FA). The FA drafted an official, universal set of rules. Not all clubs signed on, and so the sport we call rugby–named for Rugby School–went its own way. This FA style of football became known as, naturally, “association football” to distinguish it precisely from the other forms, such as rugby football.

But, if you’ve ever walked down the halls of a high school or a university, surely you’ve heard the young adults using their own idiosyncratic way of speaking, their own cant, their own slang. It signals, deepens, and preserves their bond, their identity, their social group. Groups centered around very structured and intensive activities–sports or music are preeminent examples–can feature especially well-developed slang or argot. This, apparently, was particularly true on the campuses of late-1800s England, such as Oxford University, home to something now known as the Oxford “-er.”

According to Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, this Oxford “-er”:

…began late in 1875 and came from Rugby School…By this process, the original word is changed and gen[erally] abridged; then ‘-er’ is added. Thus, ‘memorial’ > memugger, the ‘Radcliffe’ Camera > ‘the Radder…Occ[asionally] the word is pluralised, where the origin ends in ‘s’: as in ‘Adders,’ Addison’s Walk, ‘Jaggers,’ Jesus College. This -er has got itself into gen[erally] upper-middle-class s[lang].

So, association gets shortened to its –soc- component, and, with the addition of –er, we get soccer. It was variously pronounced as socca (a common feature for British English, known as non-rhoticity) and spelled as socker. Why soc? Well, otherwise we’d be playing assers or some such. English footballer Charles Wreford Brown is given credit for popularizing the term.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology offers some offer examples of this Oxonian “-er”: along with soccer was footer (“football”) and rugger (“rugby football”); bedder referred to the “bedroom”; ekker, “exercise”; fresher, a “freshman”; and tosher, “an unattached student at Oxford.”

Stateside, the first American football game was played–something like rugby and football, I mean soccer–in 1869, and the term “football” for it was already gaining currency. So, why did soccer stick in the States? I speculate:  For one, there was need for the term, leaving use of “football” for the gridiron descendant of the game. And perhaps class and status take the field, too. The schools where the sport was codified were elite and prestigious, and the slang used therein upper and upper-middle-class, as Partridge notes above. I suppose, then, we must think about the socioeconomic status of the British colonists whose exported the game to the colonies, but we’ll save that for another match.

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We might not be done with this *gno- just yet.


Many centuries ago in ancient Rome, a norma was a carpenter’s square, a tool used to measure out angles, especially right ones. Something normalis, then, was “made according to a carpenter’s square” (Klein). Even in antiquity, though, this norma was metaphorical, naming a “standard,” “pattern,” or “rule,” and hence we have the English norm and normal. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology cites normal as “rectangular” and “perpendicular” as of the 17th century, with “conforming to the standard” in the 19th.

A carpenter’s square. Clearly not ancient. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Abnormal is “out of the norm,” with ab– meaning “away from.” The history of this form, though, is itself a bit abnormal, for it is ultimately a blend. An earlier form was abnormous, and it competed with anormal. Latin had abnormis, literally “away from the standard,” and in Late Latin we find anomalus for “uneven.”

Source of the English anomaly, anomalus squares up with the Greek anomalos, joining the prefix an– (“not”) and homalos (“even”). This homalos, I should note, is from homos, which is essentially the same as our English same. It’s also the source of the prefix homo-.

Abnormous might make you think of enormous, and it should. Despite its “size,”  enormous is a small jump from Latin’s enormis, literally, and again, e- (“out of”) and norma. Enormis could mean “irregular,” “shapeless,” and “very large.” Today, enormous is reserved to describe great size, although some centuries ago it did mean “outrageous.” An enormity–something outrageous, particularly in the moral sense implied by “out of the standard”–preserves this sense.

*Gno- or Nope?

Do we know anything further about this Latin norma?

Many etymologists end with norma, but Klein suggests that it could have been borrowed from the Greek, “probably through the medium of Etruscans.” Partridge offers gnorimos as a “carpenter’s square,” though the word is also glossed as “well-known.” Klein offers gnomon with respect to “carpenter’s square,” adding “literally, one who, or that which, knows; judge, indicator.” If this is the case, at root would be the Greek gignoskein–and thus the Proto-Indo-European *gno-. (Remember diagnosis and can?) It would also be related to the rather academic but nonetheless occasionally useful gnomic, essentially, “aphoristic.” A gnome is a “maxim.” Unrelated to your garden-variety gnome.

If anything, the etymology of norm is a reminder that what is considered “normal” is not natural but indeed man-made. And here, constructed in the most literal sense. But the question remains: What would be considered normal in a non-Euclidean world?

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*gno- (part ii)

In Part 1, we studied the origins of the English knowcnaw–rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *gno-, “to know.” As we saw, down the Germanic line, this *gno– eventually parented the English cancouldcunningcouth/uncouthcanny/uncanny, a sense of the word con, and keen.

In Greek, it produced gignoskein, with the derivative gnostos. This yielded diagnosisprognosis, as well as good old gnosis, in all of its mystical and philosophical glory. Perhaps Gnosticism rings a bell, or agnostic, coined by T.H. Huxley in 1869 or 1870. And agnosia–literally “without knowledge”– describes a whole category of unusual neurological disorders, such as prosopagnosia, so-called “face-blindness.”

Roman “*Gno-se”

In Latin,*gno- took on inflections to become gnoscere (“to know,” “learn,” “recognize,” among others), with the later variant noscere, as well as gnarus (“having knowledge of,” “skilled,” “familiar”). The g once carried phonetic weight, making the first syllable of gnoscere sound like, say, the cluster ngn in hangnail or the gn in the Italian signora.

Noscere‘s offshoots will be the focus of this post, and let’s just say that I don’t think you could have gotten through high school without making use of them:

  • Perhaps you took them copiously, played them on your tuba, or passed them in the class? Note is from the past participial form of noscere, notus. Literally, it is a “known” thing, and, aside from the many meanings of “note,” it also gives English notation, notable, notion, notice, and notary public.
  • The French Revolution or periodic table? From the adjective nobilis, and an earlier form gnobilis, is noble. Originally, it meant “known,” “famous,” and “excellent,” referring, too, to aristocratic senses. As far as noble gases are concerned, I always heard the explanation that the elements are so-called noble because, like aristocrats who did not like to mix with the masses, so they did not like to react with other elements. This is a little folky, but certain metals were once referred to as noble, due to their special qualities, and so this functioned as an analog to chemist Hugo Erdmann in 1898, apparently.
  • Cafeteria insult or losing utterance in class debate? Ignorant takes its shape from gnarus, joining and assimilating the prefix in-, which, here, serves to negate. So, ignorant is, quite simply, “not knowing.” To ignore is also “not to know,” but its modern meanings comes about rather late. Ignoramus is a full-fledged Latin verb, “we do not know,” and emerges from a 16th-century legal term jurors issued in the face of insufficient evidence. A satire of the common lawyer (in a 1615 play) later dressed it as ridicule (ODEE).
  • First-person, unreliable, stream-of-consciousness? Narrative also is a story told by gnarus, “knowing.” It generated the Latin verb narrare, “to make known” or “to relate” (Skeat). I think the sense of “relate” as narrating is fast fading, but, anyways, from narrare came everyone’s favorite thing to have to find on 9th-grade standardized tests.
  • Maybe you delved into a little psychology or dug deep into a thesaurus for an imprecise dress-up of more ordinary and better-called for diction? Cognition joins an assimilated for of com– (“with, together”) and gnoscere, adding up to “to get acquainted with, get to know.” From it, we’ve also gotten to know, via French, reconnaissance, recognizance, cognizance, and reconnoiter.
  • Did your English teacher like to point out its salacious pun in so many poems? Quaint, oh how far your form and sense has come! Like cognition, the word is rooted in cognoscere. Just as notus was noscere‘s past participle, so cognitus (“well-known”) was cognoscere‘s. In French, it shed its ending and merge its medial sounds, yielding coint, “fine” and “neat.” If you keep French pronunciation in mind, you might see how English rendered the word as queintquoint, and, now, quaint. It started out meaning “skillful,” “crafty,” “pretty,” and “ingenious” (Skeat; Weekley), evolved to “odd” and “whimsical” (Skeat) as well as the now better known “old-fashioned.” Acquaint and acquaintance are also offspring of cognoscere. 

Etymologically, knowledge–as far as *gno– is concerned–may not be “power,” but it’s just about everything else.

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