United Airlines is under fire after guards violently dragged a passenger from a flight the airline overbooked on Monday. Its CEO, Oscar Munoz, only made matters worse when he apologized for “having to re-accommodate these customers.” United is clearly making up its own, all-too-self-accommodating definition of accommodate. So, let’s help them out: The history and origin of accommodate has some valuable lessons to impart.
A very accommodating word
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the earliest recorded use of accommodate comes in 1525 as an adjective for “suitflable” or “fitting.” The dictionary attests the verb accommodate not long after in 1531, first meaning “to apply, attribute, or ascribe (words) to a person.” The noun accommodation follows in 1566, and accommodating, “helpfully obliging someone’s wishes or needs,” in 1642.
Sixteenth-century English well accommodated the word accommodate, with many of its modern uses emerging then. In 1538, the OED finds the sense of “adapt oneself to another thing or person,” 1582 “to equip or furnish,” 1592 “to provide lodging,” and 1597 “to be flexible, obliging, or conciliatory.” Yet more senses familiar to us today, both general and specialized, continued developing in the early 1600s out of this useful word, including “to provide suitable space or time” by 1636.
Fitting it all together
The word accommodate re-accommodates Latin, as it were. The word directly passed into English via accommodātus, “suitable” or “appropriate,” from the verb accommodāre, “to make fit,” “to fasten on,” “adapt,” and so forth. The word has three basic parts: Ac- (from ad, “to”), and commodāre (“to provide, fit, oblige”), in turn composed of com- (from cum, “together,” here in an intensive sense of “altogether”), and modus.
Latin’s modus has as wide a range of meanings as its derivative, the English mode, including “manner,” “measure,” and “method,” accommodating a variety of contexts, including music and grammar. Accommodāre, then, has a literal sense of “properly fit together.”
In commodāre, you might see commode. This word, which is Latin via French, first referred to a fashionable women’s headdress in the late 17th century, only naming an “an enclosed chamber pot” in 1851, as this bathroom advancement was considered more “convenient” for sick people to use.
À la mode
Other derivatives of modus are quite instructive for United Airlines. Model, moderate, modern, and modest are qualities none of its decisions demonstrated. We should hope the company is modifying its policies, as it treated a passenger like a commodity. Modus is also related to the Latin medērī, “to heal or cure,” source of medical and its word family—appropriately enough for the passenger, a doctor, and the injuries, not to mention humiliation, he sustained. Another verb, meditārī, “to think about,” yields meditate, which we should also hope United is seriously undertaking.
The grammatical mood, e.g., subjunctive mood, also comes from modus. It’s unrelated to the emotional mood, which has Germanic roots.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, the deeper root of modus and its kin is the Proto-Indo-European *med-, “to take appropriate measures,” cousin to the Germanic-based empty, mete, and must.
“To take appropriate measures”: It seems United Airlines desperately needs a lesson in the word appropriate, too. Otherwise, United won’t be dealing with overbooked seats—but a whole lot of empty ones.