This week, US President Donald Trump’s policy of separating families seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border, well, separated our hearts. We’ve seen the cruel ironies of etymology on this blog before. The word separate, alas, is no exception.
Together and apart
Separate enters English from French via Latin. The earliest form, the noun separation, is attested in the early 1400s, the verb and adjective by the end of the century.
The Latin root is separare, “to pull apart.” The “pulling apart” families policy—that plain language better captures it, doesn’t it?
The verb separare joins a verbal prefix se- (without, apart) and parare (“to get ready”). Words like seclude, secret, secure, sedition, seduce, and segregate also feature that separating se- element.
The word prepare also comes from parare, which is related to the word parent. The root verb is slightly different, parere or parire, “to bring forth,” extended to “to give birth.”
A parent, then, is literally something that “produces”—a parens, in Latin, could refer to any mother or father, plant or animal, that begets offspring, though it largely narrowed to the human form in English since at least the 15th century.
The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) base for separate and parent, if we dig deeper into the realm of hypothetical reconstructions, is *pere-, “to produce” or “procure.”
Mainly through Latin, this PIE root also ultimately yields apparel, empire, parade, repair, and viper—that last derivative (literally “begetting alive”) particularly apt for the immorality, the inhumanity of an immigration policy that separates parents from their children.