To give is to receive

The previous post talked about some words derived from the Latin verb habitāre that meant ‘inhabit, dwell.’ If we go farther back, we find habitāre itself was a frequentative verb that the Romans created from the stem of habitus, the past participle of the important verb habēre ‘to possess, have, hold’ that became Spanish haber but that in spite of the striking coincidence in form and meaning is completely unrelated to English have. No kidding. If you’d like more information about English have and its origins, you can check out a post that appeared here in 2014.

If we push even further back, we find that Latin habēre descended from the Indo-European root *ghabh- (or *ghebh-), which, as a good example of the duality principle, could mean both ‘to receive’ and ‘to give.’ There can be no receiving if someone isn’t simultaneously giving. The ‘receiving’ end of the spectrum came down into Latin habēre. Then there was a further shift in semantics: after you’ve received something, you have it. At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘giving’ sense of Indo-European *ghebh- is apparent in native English give and the corresponding noun gift, which came from Old Norse. There’s also forgive, a compound of give.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim Ruebush
    Jan 30, 2017 @ 11:13:31

    Always interesting where our expressions originated and evolved.


  2. shoreacres
    Jan 31, 2017 @ 21:55:47

    Your discussion reminds me of the phrase used in traditional wedding vows: “to have and to hold.” I’ve always assumed, a little thoughtlessly, that the two words described the same reality, but now I’m not so sure.

    It also occurs to me that while it’s true “there can be no receiving if someone isn’t simultaneously giving,” the reverse holds true, as well. A gift doesn’t truly become a gift until it’s received.

    “Forgive” reminded me of “forswear.” I’ve never considered for- to be a prefix, but now I’m thinking it might be.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 01, 2017 @ 04:48:45

      I think the main reason you haven’t considered for- a prefix is that it’s no longer productive, by which term linguists mean that people don’t create new compounds with it. Because surviving compounds with for- are old words, it’s not always clear to modern speakers of the language what sense the prefix originally added to the root of the compound. For example, what meaning did for- add to get in forget or to bid in forbid?

      There’s a good treatment of this old prefix in Wiktionary:

      Most of the English compounds containing this prefix that are listed at

      are archaic, but a few are still common words.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 01, 2017 @ 05:02:17

      You’re right that the duality principle is reciprocal. For instance, something can’t be considered big except by comparison to something smaller, and something can’t be considered small except by comparison to something bigger.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 01, 2017 @ 05:20:12

      As for “to have and to hold,” my sense is that your original take that the two verbs are synonyms is correct. People do like to repeat and reinforce, especially alliteratively (see, I just did it with “repeat and reinforce”). A current example with an h-sound is ‘a whole host of…” Legal language is full of doublings, as in “cease and desist.” It’s the bread and butter of educationists, who can’t stop using redundancies like “goals and objectives.” I always want to ask them: “Can you give me an example of a goal that’s not an objective, or an objective that’s not a goal?”


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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