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.
If you’re about to commit to parting with cash for the use of, say, a car, an apartment, or a backhoe, the only connection between the “letting go” of release and the legal document called a lease seems to be that the latter indicates you’ll be doing the former with your money. The two words are related etymologically, but they’ve shifted so much in the last half-millennium that they are far more separate than they once were.
The Latin verb laxare “to loosen, open, widen” comes from laxus “loose.” Latin also has the word relaxare, similarly parsed in English as “to loosen, stretch out.”
That Latin re- prefix gets a lot of use (and reuse) in English, from well-worn words like report to modern coinages like recombobulation area, what some airports call the zone where you put your shoes and belt back on after going through security. It was much used on both Latin and French as well, and like in English, its sense sometimes weakened so much over time that it seems to hold no semantic content at all, or else served primarily as an intensifier.
That seems to be the case with laxare and relaxare, whose original senses weren’t widely differentiated. Nonetheless, the two words developed separately through Old French and into English.
An x in the middle of a Latin word tended to become an s or ss in French; thus laxare became laissier, meaning “to let out, to let go,” but also “to let, to permit.” It’s this sense of permission — of legally permitting someone to use something you own — that became the Anglo-French verb lesser “to lease” and noun les “a lease,” leading to botht he noun and verb forms of modern lease.
Meanwhile, relaxare became the Old French relacher or relaissier, but it had taken the idea of loosening to further extremes, including letting go completely. By the 14th century, release (in its earlier English form relesen) could indicate an alleviation of, for example, distress, or it could mean a complete withdrawal, revocation, or letting go — an arrow could be released from a bow, a criminal from prison, or, yes, a lessee from a lease.
And if you’ve been noticing the similarities between those Latin roots and the English words lax and relax, that’s no coincidence. They grew from the same root as lease and release and parallel their evolution in many ways.
And one last editorial note: If you need to indicate that someone is leasing something again, rather than letting something go, you want to add a hyphen after the prefix to make it clear: re-leasing versus releasing. The same is true of other confusable words as well, like re-creation and recreation, re-sign and resign, and re-cover and recover.
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