Learn How Key Words Are Related By Examining Their Roots

When you live inside the English language, you begin to see associations that are invisible to others, the way that the little kid in the movie “The Sixth Sense” sees dead people. Making connections between words is, indeed, a lively art.

I remember the day I bumped into my colleague Vanessa Goodrum, who was dressed in a gray fleece vest with a white Poynter logo on it. Since I’d seen her wear it a number of times, I said to her, “Hmmm … looks like that vest was a good in-vest-ment.” She groaned. “Do you have a vest-ed interest in it?” Louder groan. “When you take it off are you di-vest-ing yourself of it?” Ran from the room.

Beyond the pun-ishment, I began to wonder: Are these words really related? A quick search of the American Heritage Dictionary reveals that they are. All these words — “vest,” “vestment,” “vested,” “invest” and “divest” — derive from the Latin word for “clothing.” Together they form a kind of cognate cluster, a group of words that share a common origin, but which may lose that connection in the popular mind over time.

For example, I startled myself when I realized that the word “common,” with all its denotations and connotations, is related by etymology to the words “commonality,” “commons,” “community” and “communion.” Not to mention “communication,” “commonplace” and “commune.”

I once told someone I was “famished” and wondered whether it shared an origin with “famine.” The answer, of course, is yes: the Latin word for hunger is “fames.” On that same page of the AHD I run into the family of words connected to, well, “family”: “familial,” “familiarize” and “familiarity.” I’ve read about the literary technique “defamiliarization” without once recognizing that “family” was at its heart.

Or how about “courage,” from the Latin word for “heart” forming a cluster with “encourage” and “discourage”? Both those words become more poignant when I realize they mean “give heart to” or “take the heart from.”

If I write “these third-grade carnivores wolfed down the chili con carne at the school carnival with ravenous delight,” I am playing with the fact that “carnivore,” “carne” and “carnival” all derive from the Latin word for “meat.” A carnival is literally a celebration of “meat,” once associated with the feasting that came right before the fasting of Lent.

Now look back at my word “ravenous.” Have you ever before seen the word “raven” in it? It turns out that the bird comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “hræfn,” while words like rave, ravenous, ravish, ravishing and ravage, come from the Latin word meaning to rape or plunder. Here is where these clusters become very tricky. While “ravish” may still serve as a kind of Harlequin Romance euphemism for “rape,” semantic change has turned “ravishing,” meaning “alluring” into a kind of sophisticated compliment. But I can never use it again without remembering that at its core it probably means “worthy of rape.”

I’ve heard feminist critiques of words such as “hysterical,” and I take them seriously. If you connect it with the medical practice “hysterectomy,” you are entitled to scratch your head. Both words come from the Greek and Latin words for “womb.” So a hysterectomy involves the partial or total surgical removal of the uterus or womb.

Hysteria is a condition of emotional imbalance, once thought to derive from the womb. Although it could be applied to a man, as a terrible insult, the word “hysterical” is usually applied to a woman who is crying or laughing uncontrollably. When used to mean “acting out of control like an emotional woman,” it deserves a caution or objection. But you can’t reach that point of understanding unless you can see “hyster” as connected to both words.

A “mortuary” is the place where we store the newly dead, from the Latin word “mort,” meaning death. But would you connect the word as part of a cluster that includes “mortal,” “immortal,” “mortality,” “mortify” and even “mortgage” (literally, a “death pledge”!)?

The AHD includes a family tree of the English language — a tree with many branches, but with a trunk, a common ancestor, that is called Indo-European. A separate slim volume, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots,” is a treasure trove of cognate clusters.

I opened it at random and found the Indo-European root “bhel,” which carried meanings such as “to shine, flash, burn; shining white and various bright colors.” This lexicon traces possible connections of “bhel” with this cluster of cognates: beluga (as in beluga whale, which is white), blue, bleach, bleak, blitzkrieg, blaze, blind, blend, blanch, blanket, blush and (hurray) blond. So if you wrote this sentence: “The bleached blond sat on her blue blanket on a bleak day and blushed as a blitz of beluga whales blazed along the shore,” you would be using nine words connected to the same I-E root: “bhel.”

While it is fun to imagine the creative connections and interactions between and among these related words, it’s also fun — and important — to realize when seemingly related words have no common heritage. “Mosaic,” referring to the Law of Moses has no relation to the word “mosaic,” meaning a picture made out of pieces of stone or tile, unless someone on the way to the Promised Land gathered the shattered stone tablets from the foot of Mt. Sinai and created a nice image of the Red Sea.

Workshop

Using your favorite dictionaries or language Web sites, research the following questions:

1. What is the common heritage of the words “orient,” “Orient,” “Oriental,” “orientate” and “orientation”? In which context is “Oriental” deemed offensive?

2. Investigate this claim: “Although the word ‘orgy’ now describes a sex party, its origins have more to do with religion than sexuality.”

3. Explore the relationships, if any, among the words “pish,” “piss,” “pismire,” “piss-ant,” “pissed,” “pissoir,” “pistil” and “pistol.”

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