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.
In 1929, the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy published a short story called “Láncszemek” (“Chains”) in which he proposed that any two people are six or fewer social connections away from each other. This concept of “six degrees of separation,” then, has been around for almost a century, but it didn’t really take off in popularity until the appearance John Guare’s 1990 play (and subsequent 1993 film) Six Degrees of Separation.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, finding the connections between two people — especially between actors — became a fun pastime. (Kevin Bacon was a common focal point.) The same concept can be applied to etymologies, too, connecting words with shared roots into a chain that connects two words. And the connections can reveal some surprising relations within the language.
Whether any two words can be connected this way remains to be seen, but it can be fun to try. For instance, childhood and adolescence can be connected in six steps. Here’s one way to get there:
The word child goes way back in the language, to the Old English cild, referring to a fetus or a newly born infant. Over time the age at which we consider a person to still be a child has lengthened. But regardless of how long someone remained a child, that particular time in their life was referred to in Old English as cildhad, which evolved into childhood.
Cildhad uses the Old English -had suffix, meaning “condition or quality of being,” which is the source for the final syllable of a few other common words, including manhood, falsehood, likelihood, and …
This word wasn’t much needed until the young United States started to expand. The people who coined it (earliest known use in print: 1805) either didn’t know or didn’t care that they were mixing their root languages, creating a hybrid word, when they tacked the purely English suffix -hood to the end of state, which comes from Latin.
State (as well as estate) traces back to the Latin word status, meaning “position, place; order, arrangement,” but used figuratively, indicated “standing, rank; community organization.” Status itself is a noun formed from the past participle stem of stare, “to stand.” This creates an interesting etymological link between the phrase “United We Stand” and “United States,” but it also links statehood to …
The super- in superstition is a pretty common Latinate prefix. You can find it in, for instance, supernatural, superlative, and superficial; it means “above, over, or beyond.” This prefix was added to the same Latin stare that developed into state, creating superstare “to stand on or over.” From the past participle stem of superstare came the noun superstitio, literally “a standing over,” but used to indicate soothsaying or an excessive fear of the gods, probably from the idea of the gods “standing over” us to make sure we behave and give them due deference in order that we might continue to …
While the Latin super- prefix is common enough in that form in English, that wasn’t the only language that found a use for it. In French, super shortened over time into sur. And that’s how the Latin supervivere became the Anglo-French survivre, which became the English survive.
The second half of the Latin supervivere is the verb vivere “to live,” so survive literally means “to live beyond.” And in its 15th-century legal sense, a survivor was one who “lived beyond” another — that is, someone who outlived someone else who died. (Thankfully, in modern English, no one has to die for someone else to survive.)
But life — and vivere — connotes more than just basic survival. If you’re the “life of the party,” you might be called …
Merriam-Webster defines convivial as “relating to, occupied with, or fond of feasting, drinking, and good company.” Noah Webster was a bit more succinct in his original dictionary of 1806: “festive, social, jovial, gay.” Convivial comes from the Latin convivium “banquet, feast,” from convivere, which joins vivere “to live” with what’s called the assimilated form of com-, meaning “together, with.” (Assimilated in this case just means that com- becomes con- when it comes before a v, as well as before a c, d, j, n, q, s, or t.)
Convivere, then, literally translates to “live together,” but it also meant “to carouse together” — to live it up as a group.
That com- prefix, in various assimilated forms, is pretty common in English, appearing in collateral, concentrate, correct, and …
Before a vowel, com- becomes co-. In this case, the prefix is paired with the Latin alescere “be nourished,” or more broadly “grow.” To coalesce, then, means “to grow together, to unite.” And we’re talking about growth of a more biological nature with …
Adolescence traces back to the Latin adolescere “come to maturity, grow up,” which combines alescere with the prefix ad- “to.” From this verb grew adolescent (as both a noun and adjective) and adolescence, as well as, it should be noted, adult, from the past participle adultus.
This is just one etymological route from childhood to adolescence. Can you find another that is either shorter or more surprising? Outline it in the comments below.
Featured image: Shutterstock
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now