The entries in this column for the past few days all ultimately go back to the Latin preposition contra, which Spanish still uses to mean ‘against.’ The Old French cognate of contra was the similar contre, which entered Middle English as countre and is now counter. Similar to the way in which the related encounter serves English as a noun and a verb, counter functions as a preposition, a verb, and even an adverb—as when an etymology runs counter to our intuition, for example. We should be careful to contrast that counter with the unrelated English counter that means ‘a flat surface on which to transact business,’ which is akin to Spanish contar ‘to count.’ And speaking of a contraste/contrast, that word began as the Medieval Latin verb contrastare, a compound made from contra and stare ‘to stand,’ the forerunner of Spanish estar. To contrastar/contrast two things is etymologically ‘to “stand” one “against” the other’ in order to make the differences between them stand out.
© 2010 Steven Schwartzman