“Calling to mind” the roots of the word “monument”

As Confederate monuments are coming down across American cities, President Trump is taking action to cut back national monuments in the American wilderness. This week, he announced efforts to slash the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.

The move is meeting with demonstrations and admonitions from environmentalists and Native Americans, among others, as well as legal challenges in court. But the two sides do have one thing in common: monument, demonstration, and admonition all come from the same Latin root.

Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, the nation’s first. (Pixabay)

Continue reading ““Calling to mind” the roots of the word “monument””

Under the etymological cover of “coverage”

The roots of coverage span from medieval fire prevention to famous Scottish diaries. 

On Monday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that 24 million Americans will lose coverage over the next decade under the Republican plan to replace Obamacare. Let’s follow up on last week’s look at insurance by reading over the etymological terms of coverage.

Maybe our healthcare coverage went under here? Image from pixabay.com.

The wordage of coverage

Insurance-wise, coverage refers to “all the risks covered by the terms of an insurance contract,” as Merriam-Webster defines it. This use, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds, is first recorded in the 1912 Agents’ Records from Hartford, Connecticut: “There will be nineteen policyholders disillusionized and disgusted with the limited coverage contract.” I suspect there will be many, many more such policyholders today.

This coverage, though, may not have been English’s first go at the word. The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology notes that coverage named “a charge for a booth at fair” as early as 1642. The Online Etymology Dictionary puts it even earlier, in the mid 1400s. I had trouble tracking down any further information about this word, though it certainly calls ups the modern sense of “paying a cover” to see a band or get into a club.

Coverage’s basic plan, as you probably guessed, is the word cover plus -age. What is this -age? It’s all over English: beverage, bondage, breakage, luggage, marriage, message, orphanage, and signage, to name a mere few. The suffix forms mass and abstract nouns as well as denotes action or condition. In recent years, it’s enjoyed some more humorous productivity. There was a lot of ‘Tweetage’ when the Oscars flubbed the Best Picture winner. People got into some serious bracketage when the NCAA release its 2017 March Madness basketball rankings. This –age is from French, reshaped from the Latin, noun-forming suffix –aticum.

Broad coverage

As for cover, it’s been covering a lot of different ideas in the English language for a long time. The OED cites cover for “to shield, protect, shelter” as early as 1275. By 1300 we have “to conceal,” revealing cover’s connection to covert. A batch of religious citations around 1340 shows cover applied to clothes and caps. And come 1382, cover was covering pots with lids and spreading jams over bread. The noun cover is early, too, referring especially to concealing/protective outer layers by 1300. 

The sense of cover behind insurance coverage (to defray costs, to meet or compensate a liability or risk, to protect by insurance) emerges in the record by the 1820s. Here, the OED cites The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, which the legendary author kept, in extraordinary and often heart-wrenching detail, from 1825 until he died in 1832. On March 23, 1828, Scott writes that payment for his Tales from a Grandfather “will prettily cover my London journey.” Scott faced some serious financial woes in the late 1820s; his novels saved him from ruin.

For a lecture, say, to cover the extent of some subject is by 1793 while for a newspaper to cover a story is by 1893. To cover, or “defend,” someone in sports? That’s dated to 1907. To cover someone else’s song? 1965. To cover, or “substitute for,” someone’s class? 1970.

Latin’s got it covered

Just as we get -age from French, so too we get cover. It derives from the Old French covrir (cover, protect, conceal, etc.), formed from the Latin cooperire. That looks like cooperate, but the two are not related. And recover, as in “get better,” is from the same Latin root that yields recuperate.

The Latin cooperire meant “to cover entirely.” The co- (related to com-) comes from cum (with), here intensifying a sense of completeness (together > altogether). This operire meant “to close, cover,” opposite of aperire (open). With a different prefix, dis- (away, undo) operire also gives us discover. The original sense of discover in English (1330s) was to betray someone’s secret identity.

The French covrir shows up in some surprising other places. Kerchief? It’s literally from the French for “cover head” (Old French couvrechief). The cloth started out as a women’s head-covering.  And curfew, as I previously explored on the blog, means “cover fire” (Old French cuevrefeu). It originally sounded an evening bell in medieval Europe telling townspeople to put out their fires to prevent bigger conflagrations.

With the CBO’s score for the healthcare plan, many Republicans might be scrambling to cover their heads and put out the fires – or else too many more Americans, having lost their coverage, will be coughing into handkerchiefs.

m ∫ r ∫

Why do we call the end of the world “doomsday”?

The original doom wasn’t only about last judgments. 

This week, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reset its Doomsday Clock, a long-running warning against humanity’s own self-destruction, to two and half minutes to metaphorical midnight. It hasn’t been this close to midnight since 1953, after the US and Russia both tested H-bombs. Oy.

Nuclear weapons, climate change, rising nationalism, and yes, Donald Trump, are all pushing us closer to our own ruin, according to the Bulletin. So, let’s fritter away our remaining precious moments with a little etymology: Why is it called doomsday?

Facing impending doom, you’d think we humans would have have better “judgment.” Image courtesy of pixabay.com

Continue reading “Why do we call the end of the world “doomsday”?”

The “best” and “worst” of 2016

As the new year fast approaches, we like to look back on the best – and worst – of the previous year. Twenty-sixteen did great work of the latter category, which is why I chose 2016 as the ‘word’ of the year on Slate. But why is best called “best” and what makes worst “worst”? Let’s have a look back on the origin of these two yearend favorites.

You ‘supplete’ me

English forms comparative adjectives by adding -er or more (faster, more furious) and superlative adjectives with -est or most (fastest, most furious). Except when it doesn’t. Good and bad present us with a curious exception: good/better/best and bad/worse/worst. Linguists call this irregularity “suppletion,” as an unrelated form fills, or supplies, a gap in a grammatical paradigm.

We especially see suppletion in verbs: Take went as the past tense of go, for instance, or try your tongue at any number of everyday Romance language verbs (aller/vais). And while we may treat all suppletive forms as irregular, we can’t consider all irregular forms as suppletive. Teeth and geese are irregular plurals (viz. adding -s/-es to the end of a word), but they actually follow a regular pattern of making words plural that English has long since lost.

Good jobs

Good – from the Old English god, with no apparent relation to the divine beings – ultimately traces back to Germanic and Indo-European roots for “fitting” and “suitable.” And it would have been fitting if the word good‘s degrees of comparison, following the regular paradigm, were gooder and goodest, but, alas, good (and well) use better and best.

English gets better (Old English, betera) and best (betst) from old and widespread comparative and superlative forms of a Germanic base, *bat-, meaning “good.” This root  also provides boot, “advantage” or “profit,” now only surviving in the phrase to boot, or “additionally.” This boot, unrelated to the footwear, may have influenced a pirate’s booty, but no further etymological connection is certain.

So, better and best, while themselves irregular forms for good, display a regular pattern for expressing comparison in English. Better, to put it very simply, adds -er to its root adjective. Best adds -est.

Bad boys

Now, badder and baddest – which, in spite of grammar scolds, enjoy some dialectical and colloquial currency today – were once normal forms of bad. (The origin of bad is a big question mark. Some point to the Old English bæddel, “hermaphrodite” or “effeminate man,” a derogatory term, which, thankfully, is outdated.) In Middle English, bad began supplanting evil and ill as the go-to descriptor for something “not good.” Evil and ill, meanwhile, used worse and worst for their comparatives and superlatives. As bad rose, it took worse and worst with it.

Like better and best, worse (Old English wyrsa) and worst (wyrresta) also come from the regular comparative and superlative forms of a Germanic root, adding -er and -est to *wers-, “to entangle.” This same root provides war; an “entanglement” causes confusion, a meaning which intensified over time. And the s in worse actually preserves a really old form of the Germanic source of -er (*-izon; -est < -isto). This makes a form like worser a double comparative; again, in spite of language peevers, worser was once a common and acceptable form. (Bestest, a double superlative, has been used for humorous emphasis since the 1750s.)

For better or worse

It turns out that it’s not better/best and worse/worst that are the grammatical ‘problem.’ As their etymologies show, they follow a pattern, leaving good and bad as the true troublemakers. But why would English even do this in the first place?

For one thing, English isn’t alone. Latin, along with many other Indo-European languages, shows suppletion in its “good” and “bad” trios: bonus/melior/optimus and malus/peior/pessimus, respectively.

For another, it just the way it is. Language is messy – and so are its speakers. As etymologist Anatoly Liberman sums it up best: “Good needed a partner meaning ‘more than good’ and better offered its services. We would have preferred ‘gooder,’ but our indomitable ancestors chose to do their work the hard way.”

It couldn’t’ve been any worse, I suppose.

m ∫ r ∫

Santa’s reindeer: an etymological herd

Around many holiday hearths tonight, families will recite “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a poem, properly called “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” first published anonymously in 1823 and later claimed by American professor and writer Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore’s verse is considered the source of our names for Santa’s reindeer, excluding their later leader, Rudolph:

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And [St. Nick] whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
“On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!

As some children are hoping to glimpse Santa’s reindeer across the sky this night before Christmas, let’s have a glimpse at the deeper roots of their high-flying names.


A dasher moves very quickly – or smashes something to little bits, as in one’s hopes for that new iPhone 7 under the Christmas tree. Both senses of the verb to dash are found in the early 1300s, and are connected by an underlying idea of intense energy, whether of force or speed.

The deeper root of dash is unclear. The world may be related to a Scandinavian word for “beat” or “strike,” imitating the sound of dashing something (compare bash, clash, and smash). To dash off a letter appears by the 1720s, and dashing, for “stylish,” emerges in the early 1800s a la “striking.”


Dance enters English in the 1300s from the Old French danser. Its origins, like dash, are also unclear – and somewhat less than graceful, shall we say. Some connect it to the Old High German dansōn, “to stretch out,” as in the limbs. Others suggest the Frankish *dintjan, “to tremble” or “quiver.”   


Prancing involves a jaunty and showy movement, and, originally, was often used not of any reindeer but of horses. A few theories try to explain the source of word, which is first attested in the late 1300s. Prance might come from pranse, Danish dialect for “going about in a proud fashion.” Or could be be related to prank, which has variously meant “to dress up” or “parade around,” rooted in a German word for “to show off.” It’s not certain if this prank has any relationship to those mischievous pranks, like getting a bit of coal in your stocking on Christmas.


A vixen is a “female fox,” from the Old English adjective fyxen. The word gives us a glimpse of English past. Historically, some certain southern England dialects replaced word-initial f’s with v’s – not a surprising switch, as the v-sound is what linguistics term the “voiced” form of f. This switch is preserved only in the spelling of few other words, including vane and vat. And the -en is an old, Germanic suffix used to name female animals (e.g., Old English wylfen, a “she-wolf”).

The word fox, appropriately enough, is from a Germanic base that may be related to an Indo-European root for “tail.” And vixen, a disparaging term for an “ill-tempered woman,” appears by the 1570s. Why Moore chose Vixen as a name for this airborne ungulate may be more about rhyme and meter than meaning. 


Comets speed across the sky, leaving a spectacular tail in its wake. Their tail, to the ancient Greeks, looked like long hair – and indeed, they called the celestial object κομήτης (kometes), or “long-haired star.” The Greek root is κόμη (koma), “the hair of the head.” Latin, with its comēta, borrowed the term, which coursed into English as early as 1154 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.


In Roman mythology, Cupid, depicted with his young wings and arrows, personifies desire and erotic love. His name is the Latin for “desire,” cupīdo, from the verb cupere. The English cupidity denotes an intense “desire for wealth”; concupiscence, for sex.

Donner and Blitzen

In his original A Visit from St. Nicholas, as we saw above, Moore urges on “Dunder and Blixem,” the Dutch for “thunder and lightning.” (Modern Dutch would use Donder and Bliksem.) An 1844 edition of the poem ultimately rendered the Dutch into their German counterparts: Donner and Blitzen. (Blitzen, properly, is “flash.”) Thunder is the English equivalent of Donder and Donner, while English borrowed and shortened blitz from the German Blitzkrieg, whose deadly method of rapid assault literally means “lightning war.” American football took up blitz by the 1960s.


Rudolph is not one of the original reindeer. He came to lead Santa’s cervine crew only in 1939, sparked by the imagination of Robert May, who created his story for Montgomery Ward department stores. Rudolph may be the most famous of the reindeers, but his name, ironically, refers to the glory of his nemesis: Not social isolation, but wolves. Rudolph derives from the Old High German name Hrodulf, “fame-wolf.” The name joins hruod, “fame,” and the Germanic base that gives English wolf.”

For more Christmassy etymologies, see my recent guest posts for Oxford Dictionaries on the soulful origin of wholesome, as well as an older post there covering 12 etymologies of Christmas. Revisit, too, some of Mashed Radish’s tinseled archives, including Christmas, El Niño, chestnut, and Kris Kringle. Happy Holidays! 

m ∫ r ∫

Easy as un-bi-tri? Naming new elements

Recently, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) added four new elements to the periodic table. They are temporarily known as ununtriumununpentiumununseptium, and ununoctium.

That’s a daunting lot of u’s, but the nomenclature behind them is actually pretty, um, elementary – which is about the only thing that seems simple when it comes to the business of chemistry, if you ask me.

Actually, even the naming can get pretty complicated, if you dig deep enough, but here’s a basic breakdown, with a little etymology mixed in.

The whys of all the u‘s 


Image from IUPAC.

Before receiving permanent names, new elements take on provisional ones, called “systematic names,” according to the IUPAC’s official guidelines.

These systematic names are based on the elements’ atomic numbers and derived from Latin and Greek roots for numerals.

Let’s take ununtrium. This is element 113, as the element has 113 protons. Ununtrium literally and sequentially links Latin roots for digits 1, 1, and 3. (As opposed to the Latin for one hundred and thirteen, which I believe is centum et tredecim, but don’t necessarily count on that).

And just to be clear, the Latin root for one is un-, from ūnus. For three we have tri-, formed on trēs.

Then, we tack on the suffix ium, used to name metallic elements. Indeed, these elements, completing the periodic table’s seventh row, are some truly superheavy, if incredibly short-lived, metals synthesized in the laboratory.

Now, the Latin words for many elements – like gold, or aurum, and iron, ferrum – end in –um. The Oxford English Dictionary observes that Cornish scientist Humphry Davy, who discovered a number of metals such as potassium and sodium, helped propel the -ium suffix back in 1807. Based on the compounds Davy was electrolyzing, potassium is formed on potash and sodiumsoda. And so from these –ium largely prevailed ever since.

Ununpentium follows the pattern but uses the Greek root for fivepent-, apparently to avoid confusion between Latin’s quad(for digit 4) and quint– (for digit 5).  Ununseptium and ununoctium continue with the Latin roots for seven (sept-) and eight (oct-).

And the temporary chemical symbols of the new elements– Uut, Uup, Uus, and Uu0 – simply abbreviate the initial letter of their component numerical roots. Easy as un-, bi-, tri-, right?

All this once made element 111, now officially roentgenium, quite the u-ful: unununium, with chemical symbol Uuu.

Name game, round 2

Next, the new elements’ discoverers will submit recommendations for permanent names to the IUPAC, which reviews them for suitability, especially for use across languages. According to the IUPAC’s guidelines, the new names must be based on a mythological concept or character, a mineral or similar substance, a place or geographical region, a property the element displays, or a scientist.

If recent discoveries are any measure, the new names will likely honor the laboratories or nationalities of the scientists. So, the Japanese scientists who synthesized ununtrium may submit japonium for the official name.

You can read the IUPAC’s official recommendations for naming new elements here. For more on the history of the IUPAC’s recommendations, I recommend this piece by Quartz. I also enjoyed the BBC’s take on how elements get their names. And for some more general information on the elements, head over to NPR.

Next post, we’ll look into the origin of the very word element, which turns out to be far from basic.

m ∫ r ∫ 


As I’m sure you know by now, Donald Trump has come under fire for his sexist “blood” remarks he made in reference to Fox News Host Megyn Kelly, who helped moderate last Thursday’s GOP presidential debate. Conservative blogger and radio host Eric Erickson, who has since disinvited Trump from his upcoming RedState Gathering, commented on Trump’s remarks: “I just don’t want someone on stage who gets a hostile question from a lady and his first inclination is to imply it was hormonal. It just was wrong.” An unapologetic Trump has objected to this characterization of hormonal, claiming instead he felt “viciously attacked” by Kelly – ironically enough if we look to the etymology of hormone.

Attack of the anemones? "Sea anemone." Ink, ballpoint, and highlighter on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Attack of the anemones? “Sea anemone.” Ink, ballpoint, and highlighter on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


Hormones are often described as the body’s chemical messengers sent through the bloodstream to regulate various functions in organs and tissue. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, British physiologist Ernest Henry Starling coined the term hormone for these substances as a result of his research on secretin in 1902. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records Starling’s usage of the word in 1905: “These chemical messengers, however, of ‘hormones,’…as we might call them.”

These hormones are “attacks,” as we might etymologically call them.

Starling formed the word directly on the Greek ὁρμῶν (hormon), a present participle of the verb ὁρμᾶν, (horman), “to set into motion.”  In English, a present participle is the -ing form of a verb: I am etymologizing. So, hormone is “setting into motion.”

The verb ὁρμᾶν (horman) is formed on a noun, ὁρμή (horme). According to Liddell and Scott’s Greek lexicon, the Greek ὁρμή has two main meanings. First, it signifies a “violent movement onwards, assault, attack, onset” – a “vicious attack,” Donald Trump might say. From this sense, it secondarily signified “the first stir or start in [an effort], an impulse.” They note the Latin equivalent (and English borrowing impetus) to gloss both senses.  Physiologically, then, hormones “are named for their stimulating effect,” as philologist Jordan Shipley concisely puts it.

The Ancient Greeks personified – and worshipped – Ὁρμή (Horme) as a goddess of effort, energy, and action. Carl Jung later used horme to refer to unconscious psychological energy driving human behavior. Perhaps Trump should brush up on his Jung.

In the body, a hormone is produced by glands. According to American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD), the Greek ὁρμή was produced by the Proto-Indo-European *or-sma, an extended form of *er-, “to move, to set in motion.” This root was sent down the linguistic bloodstream, so to speak, eventually forming English’s riseraiserear, orient, origin, earnest, and Starling’s own first name, Ernest. The root, the AHD also explains, generated a very important little verb, are. Maybe if Hamlet had conjugated to be he would have been a little less hesitant.

Sexist suffix? 

Starling’s secretin inspired hormone, but some different substances have influenced what the ending of hormone was assimilated into: the chemical suffix -one. In 1832, German polymath Carl Reichenbach extracted oil from tar, naming it Eupion. French chemist Antoine Bussy adopted the word into French, eupione, and “noted the usefulness of the element –one as a productive suffix (likened to the Greek –ωνη female descendant),” the OED explains. Bussy rendered such chemicals as acetone. The suffix has since become productive in English.

A female patronymic or matronymic, to be more concise and less patriarchal, –ωνη (-one) could be suffixed to words to indicate “daughter of,” and is featured in English’s anemone, literally “daughter of the wind.” (The Greek anemos means “wind.”) Originally, the chemical -one designated organic compounds derived from other compounds. In its entry on hormone, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes that, “in chemical use, [-one denotes] a ‘weaker’ derivative”; chemists will refer to certain compounds, say, acids or bases, as “weak,” depending on their properties

Calling a woman hormonal is a sexist attack, but a female patronymic likened to a “weak” derivative? It appears part of the etymology of hormonal may be sexist, too.

Sea Anemone_Ink_Ballpoint_Highlighter_scribblesm ∫ r ∫


In a few short weeks, I’ll be married. So, naturally, wedlock has been on my mind. Literally, the word wedlock has been making my fingers flip through dictionaries. OK, I’ll admit this transition is a bit inelegant, but, rest assured, etymology does have its romantic side.

Specifically, I’m interested in the second half of the word: –lock. What’s going on with it?


First, the –lock in wedlock has nothing to do with the kind of locks we need keys for. Undoubtedly such locks do inform our understanding of wedlock, though. Two persons, bonded together, locked without a key…I mean, sealed and united together for a lifetime. This association is folk etymology but exerts its influence nonetheless.

Second, –lock is a dead suffix, once but no longer productive in the English language. It meant “action,” “proceedings,” or “practice,” and took the form of –lac in Old English. Essentially, it was a noun-former, functioning somewhat like -ing, –ness, or -ation. And it is probably from the Old English noun lac: “play” and “sport,” with ancillary meanings of “strife” and “sacrifice” as well as “gift.” Wiktionary adds “ritual.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that it appears in a dozen or so compounds in Old English, but only “wedlac survives with altered meaning.” OK, OED, let’s have some fun with Old English:

  • Brydlac – “nupitals, marriage ceremony,” with bryd the source of “bride”
  • Beadolac, feohtlac, and heaðlac – all referring to warfare (bead, “battle”; feoht, “action of fighting” and origin of “fight”; and the Game of Thrones-ian heað, “to raise” or “extol”) 
  • Hæmedlac and wiflac – both refer “carnal intercourse” (hæmed meant “fornication” and wif is the source of “wife”)
  • Neaflac – “robbery”
  • Wedlac – “pledge-giving, espousal,” with wed originally referring to a “pledge” or “wager” (I’ll save that for another day)
  • Witelac – “punishment, torture, fine,” with wite meaning, essentially, the same
  • Wrohtlac – “blame,” the meaning of wroht

You promised me 12, OED, and I counted 10. As noted, lac could also mean “gift,” and so we see freolac, a voluntary religious offering, and sælac, literally a “sea-gift,” some kind of a present or spoil given from the sea. In freolac, we have freo, the source of “free.” In sælac, we can see the “sea.”

Perhaps, though, wedlock is not alone in its vestigial –lac. What might keeping it company? Knowledge.

Ironically, we don’t know knowledge as well as you’d think, not to mention its complicated relationship to acknowledge. Obviously, knowledge is a compound, composed of know and, well, the second part. In Old English, the word was cnawlecce. You might see how cnaw became know, from the prolifically prolific Proto-Indo-European root *gno-. Cancunning, coulduncouth are all cognate, to name an oh so short, English few.

The –lecce? We don’t know. Walter Skeat argues that it is akin to the very -lac we see in wedlock. The OED considers this as well, though holding out its close cousins –laik and –leche as possibilities. These options may be academic, though, because the evidence seems to point back to the fact the English –lac likely corresponds to the Old Norse leikr, meaning “game, sport, contest.”

We do know, though, that the transformation of –che to –dge is something also displayed in partridge and sausage, for whatever it’s worth.

First Dance

Speaking of knowledge, do we know anything else about this –lac? Connections can be made, through the Old Norse leikr mentioned above, to “various Indo-European verbs applied to activities such as playing, leaping, springing, dancing, fighting.” Other scholars see connections to words for dancing and singing hymns.

Ultimately, these verbs–possibly including the verb, like, you know, like and the suffix –ly–may go back to the Proto-Indo-European *leig- or *loig-, meaning, variously, “jump, hop, tremble, bounce,” and “shake.” It’s unclear whether it’s causative–”to shake” or “cause to shake,” but these distinctions blur and merge, ultimately–but what we’re  getting at here is the basics, anyways.

Our language–and in my book, our thought–is a thing of nouns and verbs, of objects and actions. While stuffed with abstractions like suffixes such as –lock, these are handy shortcuts for those base metaphors that I like to fancy is our more essential human experience in the world. See Spot run. It’s simple but it’s beautiful: This running is conceptualized, almost Platonically, as Action, associated with core efforts like playing and fighting; the linguistic mind, the human mind, transformed it into a portable, modular bundle of meaning.

It’s magical, these words are. Like demerlayk, a now obsolete word meaning “magic,” “the practice of the occult art,” and “the art of jugglery,” featuring a kin form of –lac and what was originally gedwimere, a “juggler” or “sorcerer.”

And yet nothing could seem more essential. So, see Spot run. And play. And jump. And dance. And get married. And research and write word origins. It’s simple but beautiful.

m ∫ r ∫


Fast Mash

  • Via French, transition comes from Latin transitiōnem, accusative of transitiō
  • Transitiō is formed from transire, to go across, fusing trans (across) and īre (go)
  • Preposition/prefix trans likely derives from a verb, *trare (to cross), while īre stems from prolific Proto-Indo-European *ei

First off, I want to thank Stan Carey for his shout-out of “The Mashed Radish” on his always learned and be-learning Sentence First. Subscribe to him. Second, I want to welcome all the new followers I’ve gained as a result of it; I look forward to our community and conversation.

So, the big move has arrived. At the end of this week, my dictionaries and I will be in transition and transit from Minneapolis, MN to Laguna Beach, CA. (No, it is not healthy to talk about my dictionaries that way.) I plan to keep up with my weekly postings, but may be claiming a little wiggle room from time to time in the short future. But let’s just say that I suspect the ocean will be every bit as inspiring as the snow.

Since I otherwise can’t conjure up a better one, let’s get right to this week’s word: transition, a (now) regular enough word, if with a little more starch in its collar, but which displays some of the wonderful stuff of word origins and the English language.


As with many more academic, abstract, or technical English words, transition was taken right from Latin—in this case, transitiōnem, formed on transitiō. The -em marks the accusative case, the n functions as part of a conjugational paradigm, -iō gets affixed to the t of a participial stem, and…OK, we’re not in Latin class.

Know that all this inflection business—changing the form of words to change their grammatical function, like adding –s can mark the plural in English—is tell-tale Indo-European.

Also know that English, particularly Middle English, borrowed quite liberally from this -iō-/-iōn- structure (via French) to form all kinds of nouns of state or condition. Think, well, condition, or relation, nation, compression, depression, or connection (or connexion for my UK friends). In English, -ing, Germanic in origin, serves the same function as Latin -iō, forming verbal derivatives like talking, reading, and writing. But English—as most languages are, though perhaps to a higher degree than others—is a mutt, taking not just vocabulary but grammatical structures from other languages. Language, the great appropriator, the great opportunist.

In Latin, transitiō referred to a “crossing” or “passage,” although it could also signify switching political parties or infectious diseases, which some would way say are one and the same. Language trades so the wares of metaphor. By the 1550s, English took up the word from French (where else?), and it meant passing from one condition or state into another, much as it does today. (For the OED, 1975 marks the earliest evidence of transition as a verb.)


But there is more to anatomize in transitiō. Latin derived it from transīre, its own verb meaning “to go across.” We also get transit and transient from it. In transīre, you probably recognize trans, a rather productive prefix in English meaning “across/over/beyond.” Transcontinental was a big word in the age of the railroads. Transgender is an important one today. And the U.S. Congress has proved itself ever intransigent in its legislative transactions.

In English, trans is a prefix; in Latin, a prefix, too, but also a preposition. For instance, trans sylvam means “beyond the woods”; hence, Transylvania. Historical linguists posit that trans evolved from a verb, possibly *trare, which simply meant “to cross.” A relative, the English preposition through, tells a similar story.

This, to me, is the true wonder of etymology and language evolution. All the little nuts and bolts that hold language together—morphemes like -ing, humble and mundane prepositions like through or across or with, articles like the—didn’t just come from nowhere. They started out as their own whole words far back enough, words with meat and muscle, thing-words and action-words. With time and usage, with the way language both gets whittled down and built up in speech, they became purely functional, their stories now invisible or inaudible, but carrying them around with them nonetheless.


The other part of transīre is īre, that essential of essential verbs, “to go.And this is another terrific demonstration of the vigor of etymology—the way a simple sound spreads and persists and changes through time, tongue, and culture. The Online Etymology Dictionary cites a great list of the progeny of Proto-Indo-European’s *ei- (to go, walk):

  • Greek eimi (I go)
  • Latin īre (to go); iter (a way; think itinerary, reiterate)
  • Old Irish ethaim (I go); Irish bothar (a road, blending words meaning “cow’s way”; cf. bovine)
  • Gaulish eimu (we go)
  • Gothic iddja (went”
  • Sanskrit e’ti (goes); imas (we go); ayanam (a going, way)
  • Avestan ae’iti (goes)
  • Old Persian aitiy (goes)
  • Lithuian eiti (to go)
  • Old Church Slavonic iti (go)
  • Bulgarian idea (I go)
  • Russian idti (to go)
  • English ion (introduced by Faraday in 1834, but we’ll save that story for another day)

That’s impressive. I’d say transition is in good company. Those ancient utterances live on, as we teach students to write more effective transitions between body paragraphs, or discuss transitioning new software systems at the office, or figure out our footing in the world as we transition from life in Minnesota to California. And while its flesh and bones may be Latinate, transition, as these examples evidence, behaves like a true English word.

m ∫ r ∫


Fast Mash

  • Bask comes from Old Norse, baðask (bathe oneself), with middle syllable lost
  • The Scandinavian word joins baða (bathe) and reflexive verbal suffix –sk (self)
  • Suffix –sk traces back to Proto-Indo-European *swe– (self) via Old Norse pronoun sik
  • In 1300s, bask meant “to wallow/bathe,” but especially in blood; evolved to refer to “in sunshine” and metaphorical sunshine

I took our kayak out this weekend. In the middle of Lake of the Isles, I stopped paddling to bask in the summer sun—and in Minneapolis’ lovely mix of city and nature. And then it hit me: bask. I knew I forgot to include something in last week’s post on self and other. It was the word bask. And its final two letters, –sk. It turns out that there’s a lot going on in the  little word.


Old Norse—the North Germanic language of the Vikings, runes, and sagas, and parent of close siblings Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish—had sik, a reflexive pronoun. A reflexive pronoun, you may be familiar, refers to its own antecedent. In English, think myself or yourself or themselves. And, ultimately, self-referential sik can claim its spot in the selfsame bloodline as self: It, too,  derives from the prolific Proto-Indo-European *swe- we studied last post.

Over time, the Old Norse sik became contracted to -sk. (Speech loves economy, nah mean?) This functioned as a reflexive suffix tacked onto the end of verbs. In bask, –sk was suffixed onto baða, or bathe, to form baðask. (Bathe and baða, kissing cousins, you can see.) And, in everyday mouths, the middle syllable got swallowed, eventually yielding bask Busk, parent of bustle, features the same suffix: “to busy oneself.” From extended contact with the Danes, violent and peaceful, English borrowed quite the array of words, including everyday words such as sky and they.

Etymologically, bask means to bathe oneself. The form of the word today disguises its compounds; the root verb and reflexive suffix have become what some call “opaque.” I recommend you treat yourself to some more disguised compounds (such as bridal or blackmail) as described by preeminent English etymologist Anatoly Liberman. Oh, he also has a killer weekly etymology blog, The Oxford Etymologist.

“Bask in the doneness”—or blood

So, somewhere in the 1300s, baðask looses its middle and enters the language as basken. Yes, it loses one sound but picks up another. The –en marks the infinitive form (to bask), and makes it grammatical in Middle English. Almost all of English’s inflections eventually fell off, making the language abnormally uninflected for an Indo-European language. At this point, basken wasn’t always so clean or sunny. It could be straight bloody. Basken frequently meant to wallow or be suffused not just in warm liquid, but in blood.

Check out these gruesome early attestations from the OED. In 1393, John Gower wrote:

The child lay bathed in her blood..And for the blode was hote and warme He basketh him about therinne.

I don’t know what is going on here. But isn’t it pleonastic—using more words than necessary—to use him after a form of bask, the word already reflexive? Maybe it is in Icelandic, but the semantic value of -sk is lost on English ears.

Later, in 1528, poet John Skelton wrote:

Basked and baththed in their wylde burblyng..blode.

Geez, this is like Macbeth walked into the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A vertiable bloodbath. I mean, blood does really get everywhere.

Speaking of Shakespeare, he is credited with the first attestation of bask‘s brighter meanings, i.e., basking in “the genial warmth” (OED) of sunlight or fire. Says the attending lord Jaques merrily in As You Like It (2.7):

A fool, a fool, I met a fool i’th’ forest, / A motley fool—a miserable world!— / As I do live by food, I met a fool,  / Who laid him down and basked in the sun, / And railed on Lady Fortune in good terms, / In good set terms, and yet a motley fool.

From here, bask starts living a more figurative life: basking in the metaphorical “‘sunshine’ of love, favour, glory,” (OED). Or, my favorite, “doneness.”

During a discussion of the writing process, a professor once shared a story about helping her son revise and edit an essay he was writing. Even after several rounds with the red pen, she said she kept suggesting changes here, rewordings there. He replied, “Mom, at some point, you have to bask in the doneness.” Yes, at some point, things are just done. And I can’t think of a better way to describe the feeling of finishing an essay or article.

“An undoubted Scandinavian immigrant”

Smitten by Old Norse’s ability to render verbs reflexive, I did some more digging—and fell down quite the delightful rabbit hole in Icelandic language and literature scholar Eiríkr Magnússon’s 1874 “On SK and SH In English Terminations” (Cambridge; Harvard).

In this, he parses the suffix -sk in Icelandic, which has remained remarkably close to Old Norse. Apparently, –sk also functioned as reciprocal suffix (hittask, to hit each other, or meet) and as a passive suffix (kallask, to be called). It could also be suffixed to adjectives, adding “individuality and intensity” (p. 280). He writes that nið means contumely” or shame”, while niðskr means “shamefully stingy.”

But, more to our purposes here, he offers his own explanation for why bask came to be associated with the sun. This is why I love the stuff of etymology:

In ancient times it was a common custom throughout Scandinavia for people to have hot-air baths at their houses. The custom the Scandinavians doubtless adopted from the Fins, who bathe in the same manner to this day. The heated bath-house was called baðstofa, bathing stove, a word which in Iceland signifies the warmest room in the house, the sitting-room, although the use of it for bathing purposes has long since been abandoned. The hot air being the element in which it was common and customary to effect bathing by a languid repose, the tendency to repeat on a hot summer’s day the habits of the bath-room brought the phraseology of one element into the other. Hence, the common phrase at baðask í sólinni. The reflexive form, baðask, I take to be the immediate source of bask brought about by the process first of dropping the dental aspirate, ð, which, phonetically speaking, is a weak and evanescent element in the word, and the contracting baask into bask. Here, I think it must be conceded, we have to deal with an undoubted Scandinavian immigrant. (pp. 281-282)

I’m guessing these hot-air baths are akin to saunas, which indeed the Nordic are famed for. But below is an image of an Icelandic baðstofa, or living/sitting/common room. I love the sleeping dog.

Gömul baðstofa (old sitting room), where much of the cottage industry of spinning wool was done. Image courtesy of Vísindavefurinn.

 m ∫ r ∫