self & other

Fast Mash

  • Self is rooted in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *swe-, meaning “separate” or “apart,” whose derivatives range from idiot and seclude to ethics and gossip
  • Other is rooted in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *al-tero-, the base of which is *al-, meaning “beyond.” Derivatives range from allegory and alien to ultimate and else.

I don’t know about you, but I have plenty of small embarrassments that still prickle me from time to time. Most of these involve botching a greeting with a European woman. One kiss, two kisses, three kisses. Slight contact, no contact, gestured contact. I get the variations; I just lack the grace. I lack the social fluidity, always feeling I cause some sort of minor, fleshy collision, leaving behind a residue of saliva and unsophistication.

The same applies to the various hand-slapping and dapping we modern, young, American men often use in meeting and departing. I never know what is expected, and the result is knuckles, awkwardness, and a mumbled, self-deprecating chorus of “my bad.”

When it comes to writing, I shudder to recollect my first go at a college essay. We were assigned one for practice in my junior-year English class, I believe, with Mr. Cahill, may he rest in tweed-patched, Wordsworth-yawping peace. I submitted some overwrought piece about self-discovery through scholarship. The opening sentence included the word selfhood in the context of a painfully extended metaphor about mountaineering the prose of Jonathan Swift. Yuck.

Mr. Cahill passed back the papers soon enough. Scrawled across the top of mine, however, were two words that could sink the heart of any pretentious overachiever: “See me.”

“You might want to…How should I say it? Tone it down.” he said. “Selfhood?”

Wordiness, so often co-morbid with purple prose, can betray too much self-involvement on the part of the writer. So, in the interest of toning things down, instead of talking too much about myself, let’s take off the hood just talk about self.


Self comes directly from Old English, whose many Germanic cognates derive from the Proto-Germanic *selbaz, in turn coming from the Proto-Indo-European *sel-bho-. At the root of this is *swe-, meaning “separate” or “apart.”

The derivatives of this root are many and astounding. Columbia University professor John McWhorter does an incredibly lucid job, in fact, with the origin of self in his introduction to What Language Is, an entertaining and edifying read. It, in part, inspired this post.

A quick note . Why do we leave a dash at the end of roots like *swe-? The dash indicates that the roots took on suffixes that changed the role of the word in an expression, just as, say, Russian or Latin words take on endings. And as McWhorter puts it, Proto-Indo-European was a language “very heavy on suffixes” (10). For example, *swe– could pick up a d and take on –yo to function as an adjective: *swed-yo. As words change, sometimes these endings become stuck onto forms. Other times they fall off altogether. Both happened in the story of *swe-. Much thanks, Professor McWhorter.

Let’s have a taste of the *swe– life in some of Proto-Indo-European’s more prominent daughter languages.


  • Swami (one’s own master)


In Greek, *swe– took to life as idios (from *swed-yo; own, private) and took on a different suffix to form, for example, ethnos (people of one’s own kind).      

  • Idiom, idiot
  • Ethnic, ethos, ethics


In Latin, *swe- evolved into sed and se-, which were prefixed onto all kinds of verbs. Secret joins se– and cernere (to separate; discern uses the same verb). Custom is from com- (together) and suescere (to get used to). Sober fuses se– and ebrius (drunk; yes, think inebriation).  

  • Secret, secure, seduce, seclude, segregate, separate, several
  • Solo, sole, sullen
  • Sober
  • Suicide
  • Accustom, custom
  • Sodality, mansuetude, desuetude


The Germanic family morphed *swe– into *sebjo (blood relation). Gossip, originally godsibb, blends god and sibb (relative), and subsequently underwent considerable semantic development. Swain started out as “a young man attendant on a knight” and was suffixed to form boatswain and coxswain.

  • Sibling
  • Gossip
  • Swain

And, oh, you know how all the cool kids are sporting rolled-up jeans these days? They are just showing some selvage, or the edge of woven material that has been finished to prevent unraveling. Sartorially, it’s “in.” Etymologically, it’s “self-edge.”

GQ approves this selvage. Image courtesy of GQ.


As I like to pick apart not just individual words but also word themes, if you will, the etymology of self begs the question:  What about other?

Other had another life in its Old English form oþer. (The symbol <þ> is the letter thorn, which was used alongside eth, <ð>, to spell th sounds). It could function as an adjective, “the second,” (and in some cases “next”) as well as as a pronoun for “one of the two.” Other still serves as an adjective today, but not in the sense of “the second.” Scandinavian languages, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes, though, have retained this sense.

Like selfother is not alone, with its many Germanic cognates pointing back to the Proto-Germanic *antharaz, itself from the Proto-Indo-European *an-tero-. This root is a variant of *al-tero-, which is where things get quite interesting.

The second part of this root, *tero-, was a suffix to form comparative adjectives. Think: bigger, better, funner. And the first part, *al-, is believed to have meant “beyond.” Here’s some of the beyond of this “beyond”:


  • Allegory
  • Allophone, allomorph, allele


  • Alter, altruism, altercate
  • Ultra, ultimate
  • Alien, alias, alibi


  • Else

And oh, did you ever find it strange that the French refer to Germany as Allemagne or the Spanish as Alemania? (Well, as strange as anything else in the mess of language.) Anyways, I always have. It turns out there is speculation that the root of the eponym might mean “foreign men,” drawing from, what else, *al-.

Self is Other

There is you and then there is everybody else. Right? But on the etymological level, in some sense self and other blur. The self is that which is “separate from” or “apart from” others, and the other is that which is “beyond” the self. Both exist on a plane of difference and relativity, mutually defined by apartness, a beyond-ness—membranes bounded but porous, an intersubjective bridge. And, as the French poet Rimbaud more lyrically formulated it, “Je est un autre.” I is an other.