or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Clean Sweep

Last week I wrote about the word "apricot" and its roots in Arabic. The posting was recently commented on by the owner of a blog called Arabic Gems, which is devoted to the Arabic language. It's fascinating: you should check it out.


Today in my other blog I was writing about a scent which has a laundry-detergent-like note, and I used the word "detersive" to describe it (after setting the stage by using the phrase "laundry detergent": "detersive" isn't a word in everyone's vocabulary). Then I started thinking about the word "detergent" itself.

Because all you have to do is look at it to realize that "detergent" ought to be an adjective. It sure looks like one: it ends in "-ent", which is one of the suffixes we use to transform a verb into an adjective, such as "emerge"/"emergent" and "insist"/"insistent". A moment's thought will suggest that there ought to be a verb, "deterge", which was turned into an adjective, "detergent", "having cleaning properties", which was then transformed into "a detergent", a noun. And this is, unsurprisingly, exactly what happened. Why not? We did it with "deterrent", too. We love to make words in English do double duty; it just so happens that in the case of "detergent", the adjectival form was almost completely lost, leaving us with the noun.

And so "deterge" is a word, meaning "to clean: to wipe off", from the Latin "de-", "off, away from", and "tergere", "to wipe", a word which didn't leave many other traces in English. ("Detersive" was made in the same way that "detergent" was: "-ive" is another suffix we use to turn verbs into adjectives, often with a change in the terminal consonant, as in "abrade"/"abrasive" or "conclude"/"conclusive".)


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