or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Split Personality

You can't always be sure that two words which seem related really are. English is too big and unwieldy to make any apparent similarity a sure thing.

After reading this Salon.com advice-column letter about a child who is being repeatedly bitten in daycare, I thought, "I wonder if 'bite' and 'bitter' are related?" They look as if they ought to be, of course, because not only the sound but the sense if there. But you never do know, so of course I looked it up, and it will probably not surprise you to learn that they do in fact come from the same place. It's some of their other family members that might instead surprise you.

Their original source is Indo-European "bheid-", "to split". The Germanic derivations of this word gave English not only "bite" and "bitter" but also, wonderfully, "beetle" (some species of which bite) and "boat" (which, in its simplest form, the dugout, is split away from a larger piece of wood).

The Latin version of "bheid-" underwent a consonantal change to give them "findere", with the same meaning. One root of "findere" (which I have mentioned before) was "fiss-", which gave English such words as "fission" (splitting), "fissile" (easily split), and "fissure" (a split in something, such as the Earth or the skin). Another was "-fid", leading to such words as "bifid", "split into two equal parts", which you will recognize from the term "spina bifida", in which the vertebral column is not fused shut and therefore the spine goes somewhere it ought not to.

There is another group of "-fid-" words in English which are unrelated to "findere", being instead from "fides", "trust", and including such words as "perfidious" and "fiduciary". (And then of course there's "fid" itself, which seems to have some out of nowhere--it means a supporting bar or pin of some sort--and also the word "fiddle"...but that is enough for one day.)


Blogger Little Thom said...

Current research suggest that bheid is indeed the root of the word beetle, but not because some species bite (which I'm not sure is true), but because one of the characteristics of beetles is that their elytra, their hardened forewings which are their cheif characteristic, meet in a line down the center of their backs - also a characteristic. This makes them look "split."

Monday, July 30, 2007 7:58:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home