Last time, with heavy doses of nosism, I wrote about nos, which in Latin meant ‘we’ and ‘us,’ and in Spanish means ‘us’ and ‘to us.’ The corresponding Latin adjective was noster ‘our,’ with stem nostr-, which developed into Spanish nuestro. Beginning in the Renaissance, pharmacists sometimes placed the neuter Latin nostrum ‘ours’ on bottles of medicine, as if to say “This is our home remedy.” That’s the origin of nostrum as an English term for ‘a medicine whose ingredients are kept secret,’ and then more generally for ‘any sort of product or scheme that is less than reputable.’ The French cognate of Spanish nuestro is notre, which lost its s by the same process that has led some modern varieties of Spanish to turn nuestro into nuehtro and then nuetro. We recognize French Notre Dame ‘Our Lady’ as the name of a famous Gothic cathedral in Paris and also of a Catholic university in Indiana.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the underlying Indo-European root was *nes-, whose suffixed adjectival form *ns-ero‑ gave rise not only to Latin noster but also to Germanic *unsara‑. With the loss of the -n-, that became Old English ūser. The subsequent loss of the s led to Old English ūre, the ancestor of our our (for those of us who are native English speakers).

©2017 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Yong Huang
    Jan 09, 2017 @ 15:46:25

    “Old English ūser. The subsequent loss of the s led to Old English ūre”: So, there was an intermediate form ūer. which later developed into ūre?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 09, 2017 @ 16:05:44

      According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Old English exhibited the forms ūser and ūre. The latter of those is the direct ancestor of the modern our, but I’m afraid I don’t know all the links in the chain that led from Germanic *unsara‑ to ūre.


  2. shoreacres
    Jan 12, 2017 @ 22:23:29

    I thought immediately of Pater Noster, or “The Our Father,” the traditional Catholic term for the Lord’s Prayer. Then, I wondered about Nostradamus. I found that he started out as Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566), a French poet. I had no idea.

    I know one person who uses the word nostrum. She’s a good friend whose father was a small town doctor in Arkansas, many years ago. When the ladies of the town would come to see him with various vague complaints, he’d often tell them he would call in a prescription to the pharmacist, and they should stop by to pick it up.

    Then, he’d call the pharmacist, and ask him to fix up a bottle of their favorite nostrum. The pharmacist would get an empty bottle, pull out the Mogen David from his locked cabinet, and fill it up. When the patient arrived, he’d tell her to take one or two ounces every night, just before bed. My friend says her father used to laugh and laugh about how effective his nostrum was when it came to curing depression, boredom, or “the vapors.”


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 12, 2017 @ 22:38:18

      That’s a good story about the small-town pharmacist and his nostrums. The Oxford Dictionary marks “the vapors” as dated and defines the term as ‘a sudden feeling of faintness or nervousness or a state of depression.’ It seems “the vapors” have largely evaporated.

      As for the Pater Noster, that’s the origin of the English verb patter that originally meant ‘to mumble prayers in a mechanical manner’ and later more generally ‘to speak or chatter glibly and rapidly.’ Thus did the religious become secular.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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