or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Carried Away

On Monday I wrote about having found out that there's a relationship, through Indo-European roots, between certain Latin and Germanic words, the only difference being that the one contains an "-f-" where the other has a "-b-". The example I used was the IE "bher-". And wouldn't you know it? There's another "bher-" in that language which spawned the most dizzying array of words.

This "bher-" means, amusingly, exactly what you'd think it should mean if you say it loud: "bear", which is to say "carry". "Bear" itself is one of the offspring of that word, through Germanic languages, of course--it has the "-b-". What else? "Birth", of all things, which is what happens after a woman's carried a child for a while, and also "bairn", the Gaelic word for a child. "Bring" emerges from the Germanic side of "bher-", as well as "barrow"--something you use to tote your "burden"--and the "bier" which carries a corpse.

When we switch in the "-f-", we get Latin "ferre", which of course also means "to bear or carry". This side of the family is even more prolific: it gives us "fertile" ("able to carry a child") and a whole host of compounds with "-fer", including but not limited to "transfer" (to carry something across), "confer" (to carry on a conversation with someone else), "infer" (to carry an idea into your head), and even "differ" (to carry apart--in this case, opinions).

Unexpectedly, "ferry" doesn't seem to have come from this root: the OED relates it instead to a Norse word from which also comes "fare". (Could that word have come from IE "bher-"? Nobody's saying. Maybe nobody knows.) But Robert Claiborne's "The Roots of English" suggests another pair of amusing offshoots of "ferre": "furtive", how you act when you're about to carry something off, and "ferret", the little weasel that carries off your poults.


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