Should old acquaintance be forgot, as we sing in the New Year with Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne.” While we may be well-acquainted with this tradition, the etymology of the word acquaintance may be much less well-known, shall we say.

Raise your pint-stoup! “Acquaintance.” Doodle by me.


English gets acquainted with acquaintance from French sometime around the 1300s, at least as the written record is concerned. Deriving from the Old French acointance, acquaintance originally referred to “friendship” or “friend.”

These are the acquaintances we take a cup of kindness to. For only later did the word shade towards its very useful distinction of “someone who is known but not a close friend,” as Merriam-Webster concisely glosses it. Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that the sense of acquaintance referring to actual persons – as opposed to the condition of so knowing persons – is “not paralleled in the Romance languages.”

Around the same time English borrowed acquaintance, it also borrowed the word’s root verb: acquaint, from the French verb acointier“to make the acquaintance (of a person),” among many other meanings (and spellings) that evolved in the language over time.

Whaddaya know?

Now, the French acointier – as I’m sure you’ve guessed if you’re at all acquainted with Romance languages or this blog – comes from Latin. Here, we are ultimately looking at accognitus, past participle of accognoscere, “to know well.” This verb, in turn, joins ad-, “to,” and cognoscere, “to come to know.” Cognoscere itself joins cum-, “with,” and  gnoscere, “to know.”

If we dig deeper, Indo-European scholars link Latin’s gnoscere to *gno-, “to know,” a very prolific root. Last year, we saw this root’s many offspring – from could to narrative – in two posts: “*Gno– (Part I)” and “*Gno– (Part II).”

In this etymological light, acquaintance almost looks like a complete stranger, but that’s just how the sound, shape, and sense of words change over time. Just like the word quaint, indeed a cousin of acquaintance, as I wrote in “*Gno– (Part II)”:

Did your English teacher like to point out its salacious pun in so many poems? Quaint, oh how far your form and sense has come! Like cognition, the word is rooted in cognoscere. Just as notus was noscere‘s past participle, so cognitus (“well-known”) was cognoscere‘s. In French, it shed its ending and merge its medial sounds, yielding coint, “fine” and “neat.” If you keep French pronunciation in mind, you might see how English rendered the word as queintquoint, and, now, quaint. It started out meaning “skillful,” “crafty,” “pretty,” and “ingenious” (Skeat; Weekley), evolved to “odd” and “whimsical” (Skeat) as well as the now better known “old-fashioned.”

So, whaddaya know? Lest we forget, that’s what acquaintance is all about.

Happy New Year!

m ∫ r ∫


The word origins we encounter on this blog are compelling for a variety of reasons, I think. Oftentimes, an etymology takes us to some surprising places, like candy. Other times, it tells a fascinating story, such as turkey. With a word like new, though, I am struck by the word’s sheer durability. So, to bring in this New Year, let’s take etymological stock of new, which, as we will see, is anything but.

"Old news." Doodle  by me.
“Old news.” Doodle by me.


According to the Oxford Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, the root behind the English new is *néwos. It means–you guessed it–”new.”

This root has done very well for itself over time and across the Indo-European languages. We have evidence for it in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. We have evidence for it across Germanic, Celtic, and Baltic languages. The root turns up, too, in Avestan, Hittite, and Tocharian A and B. If I’m not mistaken, this means there are cognates for new in all major Indo-European daughter language groups except Albanian and Armenian. (These latter two language groups were so influenced by surrounding languages that reconstruction in them is very difficult, notes the Oxford Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.)

Apparently, there was no reason to invent a new wheel.

The Latin for new is novus, which stays fresh in words like innovatenovelnovice, novocainrenovate, and supernovaIn Greek, we have néos, which you may recognize in the prefix neo-, seen in neolithicneologism, neon, and neophyteMore directly, the English new is owed to the Old English nīwe, also recorded as nēowe and nīowe. Displaying a great deal of vowel change and complexity, the word comes from the Proto-Germanic *neuja- or *neujaz. From Newfoundland to newfangledNew Age to New Deal, and new man to the news, new has indeed served English long and served it well. 


But why has new been so sturdy? A different question might be instructive: What’s new? How would you define it? Oxford Dictionaries offers phrases such as “discovered recently” or “not existing before.” Merriam-Webster provides “not old” and “recently born, built, or created.” puts forth “having but lately come.” It’s really difficult to define new without quickly resorting to tautology or self-relfexivity.

But one word that these dictionaries bring forth in their noble efforts to define new is now–which, it turns out, is etymologically related. Etymologists take now back to the Proto-Indo-European *nu-, which they link to and see as a source of *newos. Etymologically speaking, something now is very much something new. Which makes sense. Nothing, then something. One way, then another. Nothing happening, suddenly something happening.

New, now–words, so seemingly unchanged in sound and sense, marking change.

New, now–there’s a carpe diem to fuel your New Year’s resolution, tucked away in an etymology, of all places.

Happy (Gregorian calendar) New Year!

m ∫ r ∫