Yesterday, British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered—as so many media outlets reported it—Article 50, which begins a two-year process of negotiations culminating in the UK’s exit, or Brexit, from the European Union. Let’s pull the etymological trigger on this truly historic word.
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.