The many “sist”-ers of persist and resist

Persist and resist come from a very active, and in many ways activist, Latin verb. 

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after he silenced his colleague, Elizabeth Warren, when she was opposing now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his confirmation.

But McConnell’s words spectacularly backfired: Nevertheless, she persisted has since become a rousing, much-memed feminist slogan, fitting perfectly alongside the anti-Trump rally cry, Resist.

And persist fits etymologically alongside resist, too. They share a common root: Latin’s sistere, “to take a stand.”

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Sistere is one Latin verb that won’t back down in the English language.  Image by Michael Kaufmann/freeimages.com.

Sistere, a truly ‘persistent’ root

Latin’s sistere means “to cause to stand.” The idea, here, is “setting something up in standing position.” Sistere is based on another verb, stāre, “to stand,” which exemplifies one instance of the complex and wide-ranging linguistic concept of reduplication.

Indo-European languages, like Latin, repeated (“reduplicated”) the stem of a verb to express, among other things, a fully completed action. We can see, crudely, how sistere twins the base of stāre, *st-st-, and we might imagine how this doubled “standing” conjures up something that “remains standing,” as if “stood up” or “still standing,” hence its extension to “to take a stand.”

The deeper origin of stāre is the prolific Proto-Indo-European *sta-, “to stand” or “place a thing that is standing,” which appears in everything from stand to Afghanistan

With the help of a host of prefixes, Latin got a lot of mileage  out of sistere. And so did English, when sistere rallied in the English language during the 1400-1600s from French and Latin. Here are 12 English ‘sist-er’ verbs – a thorough education in metaphor and prefixes. All dates are from the Oxford English Dictionary

  1. Absist, 1614, is a rare and obsolete verb for “to abstain.” It’s from the Latin absistere, literally “to stand back,” featuring the prefix ab- (away from). The Latin verb had the sense of “to depart” or “refrain.” 
  2. Assist, 1518, “to help or aid” comes from the Latin assistere, “to stand to or by.” As- comes from ad- (at, to). In its early life, assist, evoking its Latin origin, also meant “to be present.” 
  3. Consist, 1542, first meant “to stand firm,” like its Latin consistere, literally “to stand together.” Here, con- (together) indicates intensity. By the 1560s we see the modern consist, “to comprise”; “standing firm” was likened to “holding together.” Something consistent preserves this etymological sense. 
  4. Desist, 1530, is “to cease,” tacking the Latin prefix de- (off) onto sistere, thus “to stand down.” We largely use this verb in the legal phrase cease and desist, which etymologists might consider redundant. 
  5. Exist, 1570, joins Latin’s ex- (out of) and sistere. The idea is “standing forth,” conveying a sense of “appearance” or “becoming” that came to mean “to be real or alive.” The of sistere eventually got swallowed up in the s sound of x. 
  6. Insist, 1586, from Latin insistere, literally means “to stand on.” The prefix in- could mean “on” or “upon” in addition to “in” and “into.” Originally, insist was an effective synonym to persist but has since become associated with verbal demands. 
  7. Intersist, 1623, is another rare and obsolete sistere derivative. Meaning “to stand between” (inter-), intersistere does persist in another form, however: interstice. 
  8. Obsist, 1475, meant “to oppose,” used much like resist before it died out. The ob- means “in the way” in Latin, hence obsistere, “to stand against.” 
  9. Persist, 1531, is from the Latin persistere, “to stand through,” with per- meaning “through.” This ‘through-ness’ suggests endurance in the face of setbacks and opposition.” 
  10. Resist, ~1400, is the earliest recorded member of the English -sist family. It means “to stand against,” with the repetition in Latin’s re- (back, again) signifying a “not backing down.” 
  11. Sist, 1643: Yes, English once had a simple sist, formed from the naked Latin sistere. It largely went the way of absist and obsist. Sist first meant “to be present [stand] before a court,” though was more frequently used for “stopping” some state action by judicial decree. 
  12. Subsist, 1533, fuses sub- (under, up to) with sistere. In Latin, subsistere could mean “to cause to stop” in addition to senses that delivered modern English’s “to live (on).” The metaphor is tricky for the subsistence meaning: The “under” may evoke an idea of “supporting” or “shouldering.” 

With the way things are going, persist and resist may soon welcome more of their sisters into the political fold. Indeed, anti-Trumpers have plenty to choose from – and bonus points to anyone who can use them all in a single protest sign.

m ∫ r ∫

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