Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
When I was growing up, we young ones weren’t allowed to use profanity around adults. And even when we were solely among peers, letting one of those “dirty words” pass our lips — even the relatively mild ones found in the Bible — would inevitably lead to some goody-two-shoes threatening to tattle on us.
In my Midwest childhood, the common term for such wicked utterances was cussing, a word that existed in my vocabulary for a long time before I understood that it was an intentional mispronunciation of cursing.
But in the meantime, I started school, where teachers were fond of discussing the topics at hand — and I made a connection. In discuss, I recognized that dis- prefix, which I vaguely understood as a negation in words like disagree, disconnect, and disregard. So it seemed reasonable in my young mind that if cussing was a type of speech that used naughty words, discussing would refer to a type of speech that didn’t use those curse words. Sure, the timeline seemed backward — the act of discussing would surely have come (and been named) before cussing — but one thing I learned at a very young age, and which still holds true, is that English is rarely logical.
I was a precocious child.
Though my early analysis of discuss was way off, it wasn’t entirely wrong. That first syllable really is the common Latinate prefix meaning “lack of, not, opposite of, away,” or in this case, “apart.” The second syllable finds its root in the Latin quatere “to strike or shake” — the root of the seemingly unrelated words quash, rescue, and percussion. In Latin, dis- and -quatere were combined to become discutere, originally “to dash to pieces, to shake apart.” But when it was still a living language, Latin, like any other language, evolved over time, and it took on the meaning “to scatter,” then the more metaphorical “investigate, examine” (imagine smashing up something complex, even a complex idea, to see how all its pieces fit together), and then “debate.”
It was around this time that the word found its way into English. The earliest written evidence we have of discuss (in this case, discussen) in English comes from the late-14th and early 15th century, in the “examine” sense, but it fairly rapidly evolved into the modern “talk about” meaning.
In the meantime, while discuss was taking this etymological trip through time, cursing showed up in Middle English, probably before the 12th century. Nobody’s quite sure exactly where curse came from. It has no known linguistic relatives. It could be related to the Old French curuz “anger,” or Latin cursus “course,” or something completely different.
Regardless of how curse began, Americans started changing cursing to cussing in the early 18th century, and we’ve been cussing ever since.
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‘Discuss’ (and other tenses) is about the only word I can think of either where the ‘dis’ prefix isn’t negative. It’s a good thing it eventually found its way into our language around 500 years ago. Dashing something to pieces, shaking, shattering, scattering? No, the evolution to ‘debate’ and ‘examine’ definitely led to the ‘talk about’ meaning to which the word is definitely well suited. Wouldn’t everyone agree? Never mind.
For me personally, I think of the word ‘curse’ hiding in the dark shadows of words, rather than yelling obscenities. If I had witch put a curse on me making me a werewolf or a vampire, then the two meanings of the same word might collide simultaneously.