The French Connection

The last posting, about the familiar Spanish verb llegar, concluded with the fact, surprising to most people, that llegar is a relative of app and aplicar. English has additional relatives that Spanish lacks; that’s because of the many words that English took from French during the French domination of England in the centuries following the Battle of Hastings in the year 1066*.

As we saw in the last two entries, the Latin predecessor of app and aplicar and llegar was plicare, which meant ‘to fold.’ The Old (and modern) French descendant of that verb was plier, whose present participle has given English pliant ‘capable of being folded.’ We use the past participle plié as the name of a ballet movement in which the knees are ‘folded,’ i.e. bent, but the back remains straight. A ply is ‘a folding,’ which is to say ‘a layer,’ as in the two-ply paper towels and toilet paper that advertisers assure us are softer and more absorbent when we apply them to their intended targets than the coarse single-ply products of unworthy competitors. And another surprise: the English verb ply, as when someone plies a trade, resulted from the dropping of the weak first syllable** of apply; to ply a trade is to apply a trade. From the verb ply English created the agent noun plier ‘something that folds’; the plural pliers has come to designate, in the words of Noah Webster, ‘an instrument by which any small thing is seized and bent.’

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

* Coincidentally, the house that I grew up in, the house in which I studied Latin and French as a teenager, bore the number 1066.

** The technical term for the dropping of a sound or sounds from the beginning of a word is the Greek-derived aféresis/aph[a]eresis.

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  1. Trackback: Not social but etymological security « Spanish-English Word Connections

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If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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