9 English Words with Amusing Latin Roots

Follow your dreams, people. During the time I worked as a trivia hostess, I also wrote question sets for the company. ‘All things trivia’ is my bread and butter, and I’ve started dabbling in writing infotainment articles and pitching them to various websites. They aren’t always accepted, but I’m too proud of some of the pieces to let it go to waste.

So, why not post them here? And make a whole new category for it, too.

Let’s start with a rejected listicle all about Latin Roots! Putting my ‘useless degree’ to good use, finally:


9 English Words with Amusing Latin Roots

Latin scholars: a small yet thriving group of people. Dare to say Latin is dead, and you’ve likely taken your life into your hands. They’re proud and loud in saying, “Latin’s not dead. Just old.” Think you could join their ranks? Maybe you know enough Latin prefixes for clearing an entire Jeopardy column. Maybe it’s easy enough to guess that ‘aquatic’ has something to do with water because, you know, ‘aqua’. It’s a good start but somewhat bland. English is chock-full of words with clever, amusing, or altogether odd Latin roots. Such as…

Procrastinate

We know it all too well, the academic sport of every student. Maybe you’re procrastinating right now by reading this blurb about procrastination? Right on. Whatever the case, did you know there’s an actual name for “putting off writing your 8-page essay until two hours before it’s due”? It’s called Student Syndrome. There’s been legitimate studies done on it, including theories for why it exists at all and why it’s so common.

‘Pro’ is a common Latin preposition found in numerous English words. It’s often translated as ‘for’. ‘Cras’ is the adverb for ‘tomorrow’. Combined, these words form the overly literal verb ‘procrastinare’, meaning ‘to put off for tomorrow.’ Over time, the word ‘procrastination’ has broadened in definition. Today, it just means ‘to postpone’ or ‘to delay’, whether it be until tomorrow or sometime after.

Menses

Ladies know it all too well, but for the uninitiated, ‘menses’ refers to the byproduct of a lady’s period. Thinking back to sex ed, you may recall a menstrual cycle is also called a monthly cycle. It’s an apt name: the root for both ‘menstruation’ and ‘menses’ is the Latin noun ‘mensis’, meaning ‘month’. Even the English word ‘moon’, another thing with a monthly cycle, possibly comes from ‘mensis’.

Pliny the Elder had some strong opinions on a menstruating lady. She apparently had magical powers: “On the approach of a woman in this state… the fruit will fall from the tree beneath which she sits… A swarm of bees, if looked upon by her, will die immediately…” The list goes on and includes gems like the ability dull a sword and dim a mirror. Sounds awesome, except for the pervasive idea that menstruation is something like a disease lasted well into the modern era.

Going back to the moon…

Lunatic

Image result for spooky moon

The term ‘lunatic’ describes a person suffering from insanity caused by the moon. It’s an outdated term and does nothing to improve upon the stigma surrounding mental illness—a point with which the United States Congress agreed. On December 5th, 2012 Congress banned the term from all federal literature. The ban passed nearly unanimously except for one single dissenting vote.

The Latin roots of the word are less politically charged, however. ‘Lunatic’ comes from the Late Latin adjective ‘lunaticus’. The adjective itself is a mash-up of the noun ‘luna’, meaning ‘moon’, and the suffix ‘-ticus’, meaning ‘of’ or ‘pertaining to’. The word represents the archaic belief that the cycles of the moon could influence one’s health and behavior. A full moon is allegedly when the most extreme effects happened, such as epileptic seizures or the onset of severe mental illness. Or both.

Acumen

The word ‘acumen’ is actually a Latin loanword, like ‘victor’ and ‘color’. In modern usage, ‘acumen’ describes someone’s sharpness of mind. It’s the same in Latin, but the original sense has a more literal meaning of ‘a sharpened point’. This is because the word ‘acumen’ comes partly from the noun ‘acus’, the word for ‘needle’. So, when you say that someone is as sharp as a tack to refer to their business acumen, you’re more on point than you may have thought. Ha! Sorry.

Similarly, that’s why words like ‘acrid’ and ‘acerbic’ also have the figurative sense of ‘sharp’. ‘Acumen’, ‘acerbic’, and ‘acrid’ differ in their Latin roots (’acus’/’needle’ vs. ‘acer’/’sharp’), but they all share a Proto-Indo-European root of ‘ak-’, meaning ‘sharp’. ‘Ak-’ actually applies to a whole slew of words across the language spectrum. ‘Vinegar’ makes the list, which makes sense enough, but then there’s words like ‘hammer’ and ‘heaven’. How sharp is a hammer? How sharp is heaven?

Affiliate

The verb ‘to affiliate’ has a modern definition of ‘to come together or share a sense of closeness’, but there’s an earlier, legal meaning of the word; ‘to affiliate’ is the now defunct method of establishing paternity of an illegitimate child in a court of law. This type of affiliation is closely associated with 19th century Britain; Parliament passed a series of Bastardy Laws from 1834 until near the end of the century. The laws made it excessively difficult for an unwed mother to affiliate a man as father to their child and receive monetary support. The ultimate goal was to dissuade and thus reduce the overall number of illegitimate children. Unsurprisingly, these laws did not accomplish their intended goals. 

Why was the word ‘affiliate’ specifically chosen? The term comes from the Late Latin verb ‘affiliare’, meaning ‘to adopt as son’. The verb itself comes from the preposition ‘ad’, meaning ‘taking on’, and the noun ‘filius’, meaning ‘son’.

Fibula

Image result for fibula leg bone looks like a pin

Words ending in ‘-ula’ are usually the diminutive form of another word. Remember that, and you’ll always remember that the fibula is the smaller of the two leg bones below the knee. In this case, ‘fibula’ is the Latin word for ‘pin, clasp, or brooch’. The noun breaks down further into the verb ‘figere’ meaning ‘to fasten’ and the suffix ‘-bula’, which describes an instrument. So, a fibula is literally an instrument for fastening, AKA a pin.

What does the bone have to do with a pin? Whomever named all the bones must’ve thought that life imitates art; the fibula and tibia, the larger of the two bones, together resemble a pin. The tibia makes up the body of the pin and the fibula is the smaller, clasping part. Can you picture it?

Speaking of tibia…

Tibia

Image result for tibia flute

The tibia, or your shinbone, is also named because of its resemblance to a man-made object. ‘Tibia’ is the Latin word for ‘aulos’. An aulos is an ancient Greek woodwind instrument, characterized by the presence of one or more long, thin pipes. It’s the classical ancestor to modern-day double-reeded instruments like the oboe and the English horn. Auloi were made from a variety of materials throughout history, but some of the earliest extant auloi were carved from bone – the shinbone, most likely.

There’s even a gory Greek myth in which the satyr Marsyas challenges the god Apollo: his double auloi against Apollo’s lyre. Apollo, god that he is, wins. He punishes Marsyas by hanging him upside down from a tree and flaying him alive. A lovely bedtime story for children. Supposedly, it served as a cautionary tale of hubris against the gods.

Fornicate

Here’s a fun one. The verb ‘to fornicate’ comes from the Late Latin ‘fornicari’. The verb itself comes from the noun ‘fornix’. There’s two definitions to ‘fornix’: the original meaning is ‘arch’ or ‘vault’, whereas the second meaning is ‘brothel’. How did an arch or vault become euphemistic for brothel? The common folklore is either that 1) brothels featured a number of small, vault-like rooms where prostitutes would conduct their business, and/or 2) prostitutes would solicit clients from underneath archways of certain buildings.

Fun fact: there is a clear distinction between fornication and adultery. Fornication is consensual sex between two unmarried people, whereas an adulterer is very much married. This little nuance in the definition hints at the word’s connection to prostitution.

Gland

Close-up of Fruits on Field during Autumn

Getting back to ‘Naming Body Parts After Physical Objects”, there’s the word ‘gland’. First, there’s the Latin word ‘glans’, which means ‘acorn’. Then, there’s the diminutive ‘glandula’. It literally means ‘little acorn’, but it was primarily the word for ‘tonsils’ because of the throat tissue’s similar shape to the nuts. ‘Glandula’ underwent some French changes before it eventually clipped to our current word ‘gland’. The meaning slowly expanded from tonsils to all glands, regardless if they were acorn-shaped.

Try using ‘glandulous’ in a sentence to annoy impress people. The adjective is used to describe anything that looks like glands, such as a bowl of popcorn kernels; the inside of a gumball machine; or, best of all, a pile of acorns beneath an oak tree.

Marinate

‘To marinate’ means ‘to allow a sauce or flavoring mixture to absorb into something’. The word comes from the French verb ‘mariner’, which is a little more specific in its meaning of ‘to pickle in sea brine’. While the English ‘marinate’ may come from the French, they both trace their roots back to then Latin adjective ‘marinus’, meaning ‘of or related to the sea’. Pickling in sea brine certainly fits that bill. Reaching even further back, ‘marinus’ comes from the Latin noun ‘mare’, which plain and simply means ‘sea’. It’s where you get the more obvious derivatives such as ‘marine’, ‘maritime’, and ‘ultramarine’.

It’s fairly redundant to say we should marinate our meats in a brine—not when the verb ‘to brine’ serves just as well. Food scientists stress the importance of brining any meat before cooking. The absorbed salt in the meat reduces moisture loss during cooking, ensuring that your meats stay juicy and flavorful.


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