When small becomes big

Three consecutive posts beginning on August 12 dealt with offshoots of Latin grandis full-grown, large, great, abundant,’ including native Spanish grande and the doublets grand and grandee that English borrowed from French and Spanish, respectively. We’ll continue with that in a moment.

First, though, we note that Latin had a word meaning ‘father of a father or mother’: it was avus, the source, after a suffix was added and natural phonetic development took place, of Spanish abuelo. A parallel development led to French aïeul, but that word has become strictly literary. For normal speech, French resorted to a new creation: it took the word for ‘father’ and prefaced it with grand to yield grand-père, etymologically ‘a great or full-grown father.’ (Similarly the normal French word for ‘mother of a father or mother’ became grand-mère.) I’m going on at such length about French only because English was so heavily influenced by that language in the centuries following the Battle of Hastings in 1066 that English copied the French pattern. It took French grand and attached it to the native English words mother and father, the result being grandmother and grandfather.

When it came to a two-generation leap in the direction not of one’s ancestors but of one’s descendants, who are necessarily younger and at least initially smaller, French chose petit ‘little’ as the prefix and fils ‘son’ or fille ‘daughter’ as the noun (those are cognates of Spanish hijo and hija). The result was petit-fils for ‘grandson’ and petite-fille for ‘granddaughter.’ But self-aggrandizing English got carried away with too much of a good (or at least big) thing, and defied logic by sticking with grand as a prefix even when looking downward two generations; the result, as we all know but may never have thought about the strangeness of, is grandson and granddaughter.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

UPDATE. On October 27 my friend Don Levesque sent me this e-mail, which I’ll attach for the benefit of those who can appreciate the French play on words, which unfortunately doesn’t carry over into English because English uses grand in both grandfather and grandson:

Pour ajouter à la confusion un ami m’a écrit, “Mon petit-fils, le plus vieux qui a maintenant 18 ans, mesure 6′ 5″. C’est donc mon (très) grand petit-fils.”

That was followed the next day by another e-mail:

Un ami m’a avoué qu’il a un petit grand-père aussi bien q’un grand petit-fils.


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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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