or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, February 03, 2007


This morning we were out running some errands, and it occurred to me that "errand" and "errant" seemed like more or less exactly the same word, and I couldn't quite make out how the words had any connection to one another--if there were any connection to be found.

There is, though. Latin "errare" means "to wander", and there's the link right there, or so you'd think. It's all very tangled.

We'll start with "err", "to make a mistake", which seems like it ought to be connected at least to "errant". "Err" is definitely from "errare" (so's "erratic"), so that's that sorted, anyway.

"Errant" has two meanings; "roving", as in "knight errant", or "wrong", as in wandering away from what's right. That seems clearly enough related to "errare", and so it is. Answers.com says that "errant" is also influenced by Latin "iterare", from "iter", "journey". ("Iter" is obviously the source of "iteration" and "reiterate", isn't it? Well, actually, it isn't. Those two words come from Latin "iterum", "again". On the other hand, "itinerary" and "itinerant" are related to "iter".)

An errand, on the other hand, is something you have to travel a short distance to perform, so you'd think there's the wandering right there. However, the OED says that "errand" is of dubious etymology and possibly related to an old Teutonic word meaning "messenger", and it seems to stem from an Old English word that means "mission". So: after all that confusion, no link at all. How disappointing!

While we're at it, how do you pronounce "err"? The older--the original--pronunciation, based on the Latin, is "ur", but because of the common derivatives "error" and "errant", "air" has become a very common, perhaps the more common, pronunciation. Answers.com's usage note says, "The Usage Panel was split on the matter: 56 percent preferred 'ur', 34 percent preferred 'air', and 10 percent accepted both pronunciations." So a die-hard prescriptivist would say "air" is wrong (and I myself prefer "ur"), but in this case, I say whatever gets you understood is just fine and dandy.


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