No matter how long we inhabit our native language, there are still moments when we perceive something we’d never noticed before. One day last month I used the word tidy, and suddenly a question came to mind: might it be the case, I asked myself, that in spite of an apparent semantic mismatch, tidy comes from tide in the same morphological way that juicy obviously comes from juice and flaky from flake? I felt I was onto something because I already knew that the current meaning of tide as ‘a periodic rising and falling of the sea’ is a limited survival of the much broader senses the word used to have: ‘time; period; season.’ For example, in 1596 Edmund Spenser wrote in “Prothalamion”:

They two, forth pacing to the river’s side,
Received those two fair brides, their love’s delight;
Which, at th’ appointed tide,
Each one did make his bride….

Tidy was indeed the adjective corresponding to tide in that early sense, and the original meaning of tidy was, in the definition of the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary: ‘Being in proper time; timely; seasonable; favorable; as, tidy weather.’ From that developed the senses ‘Arranged in good order; orderly; appropriate; neat; kept in proper and becoming neatness, or habitually keeping things so; as, a tidy lass; their dress is tidy; the apartments are well furnished and tidy.’

To make a connection to Spanish, we have to go much farther back than early modern English. The American Heritage Dictionary traces tide to the Indo-European root *dā- ‘to divide,’ which we can see in the old sense of ‘season,’ which is a division of the year. The AHD finds in the suffixed Indo-European form *dā-mo‑ the possible notion of ‘division of the people,’ as reflected in ancient Greek dēmos, which meant ‘people; land.’ From that we have borrowed words like democracia/democracy ‘rule by the people’; demagogo/demagogue ‘someone who stirs up the people’; and endémico/endemic ‘occurring in a certain region.’


16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim Ruebush
    Jan 30, 2016 @ 16:33:41

    I followed this until the last paragraph. At that point, the tide turned and I was lost. I need help seeing the connection.


  2. shoreacres
    Jan 31, 2016 @ 10:03:47

    I wondered if the people who gave the name “Tide” to the famous laundry detergent had any sense of that earlier meaning. I found a page dedicated to its history, but, alas: “Tide® was chosen as the name, though no one can recall why.”

    It’s interesting that all three words — juice, flake, and tide — can be used as verbs, too. When I was a kid, people often would talk about having a little snack to “tide them over’ until lunch or supper.

    I was interested to see “endemic” here. And I certainly didn’t expect to begin the day thinking of Demosthenes, who was, after all, a bit of a fan of democracy.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 31, 2016 @ 11:37:37

      Too bad many a tide has washed away the reason for Tide. I’ll bet there’s some magazine article or other account somewhere (not necessarily available online) that explains the choice of the name.

      Juice, flake, and tide illustrate the high degree of freedom that English (compared to some other languages) affords its speakers to use a word as a different part of speech from its original one.

      It’s common for people to say that the United States is a democracy, but the direct democracy of the ancient Greeks was different from (and much smaller than) the republic that we have, where people are represented through several intermediaries.


  3. http://vivinfrance.wordpress.com
    Jan 31, 2016 @ 12:06:43

    I was attracted here from the Kitchen’s Garden by the reference to TIDY. I was hoping for some tips on how to deserve that adjective! Incorribly untidy in drawers and cupboards, I can’t sit still if there are things left about that shouldn’t be – I have to stow them somewhere out of sight. So I am both tidy and UNtidy.


  4. Maria F.
    Jan 31, 2016 @ 18:36:06

    This is a really interesting analysis Steve. I now realize that another word for ‘tidy’ in Spanish is ‘nitido’. I’ll just have to see if they’re etymologically related.


  5. dianeandjack
    Feb 01, 2016 @ 08:55:26

    So interesting, the connections!!!


  6. katechiconi
    Feb 01, 2016 @ 09:03:45

    I’m over from The Kitchen’s Garden too. You make an interesting point about inhabiting your native language. It’s my observation that the framework of language in which we are raised creates attitudes and assumptions sometimes unique to that language. One illustration of this is the word ‘stare’. There is no exact equivalent in Spanish (or indeed in French); they use the clunky ‘look fixedly’. My theory, based on 20+ years of visiting my father there, is that it is culturally acceptable in Spain to stare (in the English sense), and therefore no word with the connotation of rudeness is required.
    One further thought on ‘tidy’. How does the usage of tidy to mean ‘considerable’ (“a tidy sum of money”) fit with your etymology?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 01, 2016 @ 11:40:01

      I may have to start paying royalties to The Kitchen’s Garden. The notion that “the framework of language in which we are raised creates attitudes and assumptions sometimes unique to that language” is known in linguistics as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:


      I don’t believe I’d ever thought about our word stare, but I see that the American Heritage Dictionary traces it back to the Indo-European root ster- that meant ‘stiff.’ Other native English descendants of that root that the dictionary lists are stern, starch, and stark.

      If French and Spanish lack an exact equivalent for stare, certain words in those languages aren’t easily translated into English. Sometimes English borrows those words to fill the gap; the word nuance comes to mind as an example of an import from French.

      As for tidy in the sense of ‘considerable,’ I guess the semantic trail goes from ‘being in proper time’ to ‘favorable,’ and a tidy sum is certainly favorable to the person who receives it.


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