The right side of words

I’ve spent years trying to stay on the right side of words, which for the sake of this column means the etymological side. The word word is native English, and it arose from a suffixed form of the Indo-European root *wer-, which meant ‘to speak.’ That same root produced Latin verbum (whose v was pronounced like an English w), which meant the same as its English cognate word.

It doesn’t take much of an observer to notice that Latin verbum looks a whole lot like our word verbo/verb, and of course a verb is a kind of a word. Is that just a coincidence? No. What happened is that a Greek descendant of Indo-European *wer- took on the sense ‘verb [as opposed to a noun],’ and Latin added the Greek sense to its own verbum. Spanish borrowed that meaning of the word as verbo, and Old French as verbe, which has become English verb.

The plural of the neuter Latin noun verbum was verba, which could mean literally ‘words’ but also more loosely ‘expressions, language, discourse, conversation.’ Vulgar Latin transformed that to *verva, foreshadowing the confusion between b and v that still exists in Spanish. As happened to many Latin neuter plurals, *verva, with its typically feminine ending, came to be construed as a feminine singular as it evolved to Old French verve, one of whose meanings was ‘inspiration.’ By the 1400s the word took on the sense ‘fanciful expression, caprice,’ but still with a connection to the spoken word. Near the end of the 1600s English borrowed verve, which stands as a doublet alongside verb. The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary, which I often quote because it’s out of copyright and because its definitions tend to be full of verve themselves, defined verve as ‘excitement of imagination such as animates a poet, artist, or musician, in composing or performing; rapture; enthusiasm; spirit; energy.’

Although Spanish has done its share of borrowing from French, English has done a whole lot more. That was a result initially of the French conquest of England after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but English kept right on borrowing even after the French were no longer in control of England. Spanish doesn’t share with French the development of Vulgar Latin *verva, nor did it borrow the word from French or English. The Velazquez® Spanish and English Dictionary translates the useful English verve as ‘energía; empuje; brío; entusiasmo.’

©2015 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kathryningrid
    Jan 18, 2015 @ 23:04:26

    I will always admire your entusiasmo for great words! 🙂


  2. shoreacres
    Jan 30, 2015 @ 19:17:23

    I have a reader who prefers spelling “word” as “werd.” I’ve always wondered about it. My first thought was that it was some feminist thing, like “wimmin.” Now I suspect she may be going back to the European root. Why she would do that, I can’t say.

    Another issue your post brought to mind is the choice of “word” as the translation of the Greek logos in the prologue to St. John’s gospel. After a good bit of slogging through materials that often tended toward verbosity, I found that logos generally refers to more than a particular word. It can refer to a phrase, a sentence, an utterance, a whole speech, or even the whole power of language-based thought and reasoning.

    Some scholars suggest the use of logos in the prologue to John’s gospel is an allusion to the manner in which God creates: by speaking. Seen in that light, “word,” grounded in the root meaning “to speak,” is an appropriate translation.

    I’m sure the whole of Biblical scholarship is happy I worked that one out to my satisfaction!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 30, 2015 @ 23:34:53

      Not many people would know about the Indo-European root, so I wonder if that’s the case with your reader. My first reaction to “werd” was like yours, that it’s some kind of ideological thing. Perhaps you can ask about it to settle the matter.

      I haven’t studied Greek, but I gather that logos is a word loaded with many meanings. I’m playing again, because the original sense of the underlying Indo-European root leg- was ‘to gather, to collect,’ and from that came the metaphor of gathering sounds into words, insofar as speaking is concerned, and words into phrases and sentences, in speech and then writing and finally in the interpreting of writing, as exemplified by the fact that the Latin word for ‘to read’ was legere, the ancestor of Spanish leer.

      Biblical interpretation strikes me as riskier than etymological interpretation, even if there are controversies in both. Still, I’m not aware that etymology has triggered any wars or persecutions.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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