This morning I read a review in Columbia magazine of the novel The Executor’s Song, from which the reviewer quoted the poetic phrase “all those years on the wrong side of the words.” Now me, I’ve spent years trying to stay on the right side of words, which for the sake of this column means the etymological side. The word word is native English, and it arose from a suffixed form of the Indo-European root *wer-, which meant ‘to speak.’ That same root produced Latin verbum (whose v was pronounced w). Like its English relative, verbum meant ‘word.’
It doesn’t take much of an observer to notice that Latin verbum looks a whole lot like our word verbo/verb, and of course a verb is a kind of a word. Is that just a coincidence? No. What happened is that a Greek descendant of Indo-European *wer- took on the sense ‘verb’ [as opposed to a noun], and Latin added the Greek sense to its own verbum. Spanish borrowed that meaning of the word as verbo, and Old French as verbe, which has become English verb.
The plural of Latin verbum was verba, which could mean literally ‘words’ but also more loosely ‘expressions, language, discourse, conversation.’ Vulgar Latin transformed that to *verva, foreshadowing the confusion between b and v that exists in Spanish. That word evolved as a feminine singular to Old French verve, one of whose meanings was ‘inspiration.’ By the 1400s the word took on the sense ‘fanciful expression, caprice,’ but still with a connection to the spoken word. Near the end of the 1600s English borrowed verve, which stands as a doublet alongside verb. The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary, which I often quote because it’s out of copyright and because its definitions tend to be full of verve themselves, defined verve as ‘excitement of imagination such as animates a poet, artist, or musician, in composing or performing; rapture; enthusiasm; spirit; energy.’
Although Spanish has done its share of borrowing from French, English has done a whole lot more. That was a result initially of the French conquest of England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but English kept right on borrowing even after the French were no longer in control of England. Spanish doesn’t share with French the development of Vulgar Latin *verva, nor did it borrow the word from French or English. The Velazquez® Spanish and English Dictionary translates the useful English verve as ‘energía, entusiasmo, fervor; inspiración artística.’
©2010 Steven Schwartzman