The Latin noun grex, with stem greg-, meant ‘a flock, herd, drove, swarm.’ Spanish speakers will recognize this as the ancestor of the synonymous grey (and though some sheep may be grey, English grey, of course, is unrelated; it’s also now more commonly spelled gray). To congregar/congregate is ‘to come together like a herd or flock’ and to agregar/aggregate is ‘to form into a group.’

With opposite semantics, and in line with the past couple of postings that have looked at words in which the Latin prefix se- had the sense ‘separate, apart,’ the Romans created the verb segregare. On rare occasions the word meant literally ‘to set apart or separate from a flock,’ but usually it had the generalized flock-less meanings ‘to set apart, put away, lay aside, separate, remove, divide,’ and we can still use our borrowed segregar/segregate in those ways. The derived noun segregación/segregation, especially its English version, has come to be associated with the racial apartheid (the Afrikaans word for ‘aparthood,’ i.e. ‘apartness’) that prevailed in many parts of the United States during the century following the American Civil War. That conflict put an official end to slavery but not to the injustices of its aftermath, so that until the era of desegregation the motto “Separate but equal” really meant “Separate and unequal.”

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


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  1. Trackback: egregiously gregarious « Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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