or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


On the bus home from work tonight, I was gazing dreamily at the fallen autumn leaves, which I love, and then I thought of them as "detritus", even though they aren't, really, and then I couldn't moon over the leaves any more because I found myself wondering where exactly the word "detritus" might have come from, even though, in fact, it was the wrong word. I tried prying it apart; the prefix "de-" probably means "away from", as it often does in Latin, and the suffix "-tus" is common enough in Latin words, usually denoting a verb, but what of the middle? It was all a great mystery.

I could never have guessed that the root of "detritus" is the verb "terere", "to rub", probably because I didn't know that word. But there it is. "Deterere" is a verb meaning "to rub away, to wear down", and so detritus is something that's been worn away to particles, or, by extension, any debris. (That's the wrong word, too, for what I was looking at. "Detritus" and "debris" both refer to the rubble of things that were once whole and have been fragmented into pieces, such as stones or buildings. Leaves don't count. They're "refuse", I suppose.)

That root of "terere", "-trit-", also gave English such words as "attrition" (what you have when something has simply been worn away), "contrition" (when you're worn down with apologizing), "detrimental" (that which wears away your health or your morals), and "trite" (which is what we call an idea or phrase that's been worn down from overuse).


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