Thursday, June 26, 2014

Aren't you two, like, cousins or something?

Aren’t you two, like, cousins or something?

English is filled with words that appear to be related, but, as Ira Gershwin suggested, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

For instance, shouldn’t taut have some sort of relationship with taught? Taut showed up in the 1200s, spelled tohte. All this time it has meant stretched or pulled tight. Chances are good it came from on Old English word meaning to pull or drag, which also eventually led to the words tie, tow & duke (no kidding). The word taught also came from Old English, but its root word was spelled tahte, the past tense of taecan, to teach. As much as these two homonyms sound identical, it turns out the commonalities they share are 1) they both originated in Old English, & 2) neither one has changed meaning for centuries.

 Another pair of confusion-creating homonyms is immanent & imminent.  The first came from Latin through French in about 1530 and means indwelling or inherent. Its root word immanere meant to dwell in. Imminent, which came from Latin through French about the same time, means near at hand or impending. Imminent was formed by adding im- (meaning in) to minere (jutting out).

Principle seems as though it should be related to principal. Showing up in the 1200s, principle meant origin, source, or elemental aspect. It came from the Old French word, principe, which started off as the Latin word principium, meaning beginning, origin or foundation. And surprise, surprise, our modern word principal actually did come from the same Latin source, but while travelling through French it became principal, meaning dominant, main, or most important. Heading further back into that particular Latin family tree we also find words that have grown to become our modern words prince & prime.

And what’s up with violet & violate? Those two words together hardly seem appropriate. Showing up around 1300, the word violet came through Old French from the Latin word viole, which referred both to the flower we call the violet & its distinctive color. On the other hand, the word violate appeared about a century later from the Latin word violatus, meaning to treat with violence, dishonor or outrage. And while we’re on that note, how about the violin, the viola & the bass viol? These words all came from Latin through French, too, but the Medieval Latin grandmother word was vitula meaning a stringed instrument, probably inspired by the Roman goddess of joy, Vitula (whose name also provided the beginnings of the word fiddle).

Good readers, what other pairs of words do you think ought to be related? Please, mention them in the comments section. I’m hoping to do a second post featuring your suggestions.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik,


  1. I didn't know there was a Roman Goddess of joy. Vitula. Very pretty. I am a terrible speller and these kinds of words are why. I mean really; principle & principal, immanent & imminent. Really? Desert & dessert, definitely & defiantly, from & form (that last one is one of my typical typos but still...) Really?

  2. Howdy Christine -- thanks for stopping by. Funky spellings have always cracked me up. Thanks for the list for next week's post.

  3. Fascinating stuff as usual, Mr. Monger! I think we should revive the cult of Vitula and start tuning up those sacred fiddles!

  4. I'm with you Anne -- far better than reviving the cult of violated violets.