Senior 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.
The English language has fortune and misfortune, speaking and misspeaking, spelling and misspelling, and other similar pairs. Chief and mischief seem to follow the same pattern, but their meanings don’t line up in the same way. What sort of mischief brought on this state of affairs? Are these words even related, or is it just another one of those linguistic coincidences?
The short version: They are related, but they trace back to a common noun that is the root of a rather large etymological family tree.
Chief traces back to the Latin word caput, which means “head,” which is, after all, what a chief is. Caput originally was that literal head that sits atop your neck, but even in ancient Rome the word took on the more figurative meaning of the head of a group or organization.
Caput proliferated in a number of ways in the Romance languages. The Italian capo is one derivative; fans of mafia stories will recognize capo as a title meaning approximately “captain.” (Captain itself traces back to caput.) The Cabo in Cabo San Lucas is another; it means “cape” in English, and it evolved from the sense of “head” to “headland.”
In Old French, caput gave rise to, among other things, chief: as an adjective, “first, principal,” and as a noun “leader, ruler,” and also “capital city.” These senses were absorbed into English in the 13th and 14th centuries.
But as it turned out, French wasn’t done with the word. The Old French chief is now, in Modern French, chef, which of course was also adopted later into English specifically in its culinary sense — but historically it’s just the same chief that we borrowed from Old French.
So if chief comes from a word meaning “head,” and you tack on the well-used prefix mis-, which indicates something negative, shouldn’t mischief reduce to something like “psychological disorder” (i.e., bad in the head) or even “decapitated” — or at the very least, “an illegitimate leader.”
Language evolution is rarely so straightforward or predictable. However, it’s not a mere coincidence.
In Late Latin, we find the phrase ad caput venire, literally “to come to a head,” but it meant “to finish, to accomplish.” That phrase became the Old French idiom venir à chief, but the venir was eventually dropped and the phrase became the verb achever “to gain as a result of effort.” This was the source of the English word achieve during the Middle English period.
The opposite of the French achever was meschever, meaning “to bring to grief, to come to misfortune.” As a verbal noun, this became the English word mischief, which in the early 14th century was used in various ways to indicate misfortune, wickedness, hardships, and evil, but over time the sense was narrowed to the mischief we know today.
Just like achieve and achievement, both verb and noun forms spawned from meschever into English, but the verb sense has fallen out of use. You’ll find the verb mischieve marked as “archaic” in the dictionary, but I rather like the idea of mischieving to describe a strenuous effort failing to yield fruit or leading to disaster, and a mischievement — to separate it from mischief — as the sorry result of those efforts. Maybe we could bring it back?
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