The result of the “Brexit” referendum is historic: Britain has voted to leave the European Union. The very word leave has made its own history, too: It originally meant “to remain.”
Leave, or what “remains”
Historically, we can consider leave a contronym: a word that means its opposite, like cleave, dust, and sanction. In the earliest record, leave meant “to leave behind,” as in one’s family or property in death. By the 1200s, we see its sense shift and broaden to “leave behind” a place (as one also does in death), hence “to go away” and “depart.”
English’s leave is from the Old English lǽfan, a causative verb that meant “to have a remainder” or “to cause or allow to remain,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. (Think “what is left.”)
Surprisingly, leave is also related to live and life, which, as the Brexit underscores, is a big, fat, sticky mess. Quite literally, if English’s Proto-Indo-European (PIE) forebears are correct: the root *leip- means “to stick” and “fat.” In Greek, this root became λίπος (lipos), “grease” or “fat,” yielding the English lipid and liposuction.
In the Germanic languages, the PIE *leip-, with its underbelly of “adherence,” connoted “continuance,” hence the strange jump to life, live, and liver, once believed to make the body’s blood. The root also produced the Germanic base for “remnant” and “remain,” ancestor to the Old English lǽfan.
Ernest Klein, in his etymological dictionary, cites some other curious descendants of *leip-: the Albanian for “eye boogers,” the Latin for “bleary-eyed” (and, in part, “celibate”), and the Old Slavonic for “bird-lime.”
What, exactly, Britain’s vote to leave leaves behind, well, remains to be seen. In the meantime, if markets and politics are any measure, the Brexit seems to be living up to its ancient etymology.
5 thoughts on ““Leave”: a big, fat, sticky mess. Literally.”
I find it oddly comforting that leave is a contronym. It somehow makes it feel like things will be ok.
Well said, Simon. This is one case where I support the etymological fallacy!
Nice blog you got here. I’m new at blogging and I’m looking around for some inspirations. Your might wanna drop by and check out my work at notesfromroam.wordpress.com . Your comment is very much appreciated.😊
Very lovely site! Well done. Unless I missed it, I think an “About” page would be very useful and helpful. Orients readers, gives us quick snapshot of the 5 W’s.
Hey John, thanks for dropping by! Yeah, I think I actually forgot to include an ‘About’ page. How could I miss that? hehe Thanks for the suggestion, that’s very helpful!😊