Not social but etymological security

The Latin noun cura meant ‘care, solicitude, carefulness, thought, concern.’ Those senses have shaded into the one that predominates in cura/cure, with its emphasis on relieving illness, as seen also in the verb curar/cure. We are not yet “cured,” though, of our theme of the last few postings: words that Latin created with the prefix se-, which conveyed the idea of ‘separate, apart.’ In the case of cura, the Romans prefixed se- to create the adjective securus, literally ‘separated from care, apart from care,’ which is to say ‘free from care, carefree, unconcerned, untroubled, fearless, quiet, easy, composed.’ English has borrowed all that as secure, while Spanish has the somewhat phonetically evolved seguro. The corresponding noun is seguridad/security.

The recent posting appropriately titled “The French Connection” pointed out that English has many words that came through (Old) French and that Spanish often lacks (at least in a French-derived form). As Latin evolved to Old French, the c in securus weakened even more than it did in Spanish seguro: the result was Old French seur, whose two syllables eventually coalesced into one. The simplified sur passed into Middle English and has become the modern adjective sure, which is therefore a doublet of secure; also doublets, necessarily, are the corresponding English nouns surety and security.

When words are doublets, each of them usually has at least one meaning or nuance that the other doesn’t share. In the case of surety, the first definition that the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary gave was ‘The state of being sure; certainty; security.’ Another definition was ‘One who is bound with and for another who is primarily liable, and who is called the principal; one who engages to answer for another’s appearance in court, or for his payment of a debt, or for performance of some act; a bondsman; a bail.’ As an example of usage, the dictionary quoted the King James version of the book of Proverbs: “He that is surety for a stranger shall smart for it.” For whatever reason, the dictionary truncated the proverb, but the end of it is both relevant and a play on words: “and he that hateth suretiship is sure.” And if I were you I wouldn’t be too sure about finding suretiship in a modern dictionary; you’d be more secure if you did a search for suretyship.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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