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.
As we get closer and closer to Halloween, we’re all more likely to see representations of eldritch terrors emerging from the dark corners of folklore, in movies, on TV shows … and eventually on our doorsteps. The most horrific of these creatures will be disgusting to us.
But does that mean that the costumes that aren’t disgusting — the mermaids, Barbies, and Mario Bros. who knock on your door begging for candy — are gusting?
The dis- prefix in English can come straight from Latin, though sometimes it is filtered through French first. It indicated “apart,” “between,” “in a different direction” or, figuratively, just “not.” It passed into Old French as des-, and as those French words were adopted into English, many of them reverted to dis-: dishonor, disease, disorder. Some of them became de- (which was a parallel and competing prefix even in Latin): deface, demerit, debacle. And a few of them only kept the s: Sport, for example, comes from the French verb desporter “to enjoy oneself,” but literally “to carry away.”
Disgust was of the first type. The Old French gouster was a descendent of the Latin gustare, both of which meant “to taste.” The prefix des- was added on to make desgouster “to have a distaste for.” As a noun, desgoust literally meant “distaste,” which became the English disgust.
Which brings us to gust, a “brief rush of wind.” Is there something about the flavor of a breeze buried in that word that links it to disgust?
In short: no. Though its history isn’t entirely certain, gust probably descends from the Old Norse gustr “a cold blast of wind” and probably landed in English first as a nautical term.
There is, however, an obsolete use of gust that does come from the same source as disgust; it referred to the sense of taste. Shakespeare’s 114th sonnet makes use of this word, planted amid other metaphors of a gustatory nature:
To make of monsters, and things indigest,
Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble,
Creating every bad a perfect best
As fast as objects to his beams assemble:
O ’tis the first, ’tis flattery in my seeing,
And my great mind most kingly drinks it up,
Mine eye well knows what with his gust is ’greeing,
And to his palate doth prepare the cup.
(I end this post with a bit of the Bard not in hopes that it blows you away, but that it leaves a good taste in your mouth.)
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