In a Word: A Fistful of Fighting Words

How Latin punched English in the dictionary.


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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 Julius Caesar shook his fist while addressing the Roman Senate, what he was shaking was his pugnus, the Latin word for “fist.” And while fists are (generally) limited to shaking at people in the halls of government, they are more well known for punching, even in ancient Rome. Related to pugnus is the verb pugnare, which means “to fight,” and Latin has taken that fistfight into our lexicon, where a number of “fightin’ words” derive ultimately from the fists of belligerent Latin speakers.


Pugilist is a highfalutin name for someone who makes their living with their fists — that is, a boxer. Arriving in the English language near the end of the 18th century, the word can be inflected like any other to cover more syntactic ground, as pugilism, pugilistic or its variant pugilant, and pugilistically.


Someone who is pugnacious, displaying pugnacity, is predisposed to fighting or is combative.


We might pull out this word to describe something gross or distasteful today, but that’s a relatively recent shift in meaning. When the word began to percolate through English in the early 1400s, it meant “hostile, contrary, contradictory.” That makes sense considering it pairs the Latin pugnare “fight” with the prefix re- “against, in opposition.”

Expugn, Impugn, Oppugn, Repugn

These verbs aren’t widely used today, and it’s no mystery why; they are so close in both etymology and meaning that choosing the correct one for a given situation can be nearly impossible.

  • Expugn: Ex- usually means “out of,” but can also mean “completely.” Expugn, from the early 1400s, means “to completely eradicate.” Is it related to expunge “erase or remove completely”? Yes and no: The root of expunge is pungere “to prick,” a word separate from pugnare “to fight” in Latin, but both of those words are believe to have descended from a common linguistic ancestor in the theoretical language Proto-Indo-European.
  • Impugn: Im- is a version of in- “into, on, upon.” The Latin root of impugn meant “to fight against,” but by the 1400s, the English version had narrowed to “attack by argument,” replacing fists with words.
  • Oppugn: The op- is a version of ob- “toward, against.” To oppugn is simply oppose or fight against.
  • Repugn: Before repugnant, there was repugn … but not long before. Using the re- “again, back” prefix, he Latin verb repugnare and its English descendant repugn mean “to fight back, to resist, to disagree.”

Finally, all this talk about (linguistic) fists might leave you wondering where our English word fist comes from. The “fistory” of this word is a little uncertain, but we know it comes not from Latin but from the Germanic branches of the language family tree. It probably descends from an ancient word meaning “hand,” and might be related to the word five — because how many fingers does a hand usually have?

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  1. This word with ‘pug’ as the common denominator of its diversity, is one of the most interesting yet featured here.


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