or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Gut Reaction

So. "Gut".

It comes from Indo-European "gheu-", "to pour", which led to two main streams of words (no pun intended, as if I would ever commit a pun), one through Latin and the other through Germanic and Norse, plus one completely unexpected offspring (also through Latin, but you won't see it coming).

The northern words look reasonably like "gheu-"; they all begin with "g-", and they all have the sense of pouring or flowing; "gush", "gust" (the pouring done by wind instead of by a liquid), and "geyser". "Gut" seems like an odd inclusion in the family; it seems to stem from the way intestines pour out of a butchered animal, and comes from Old English "guttas". (This naturally made me think of "gutta-percha", which is a kind of rubber, and it would be so tempting to think the name comes from the way the sap flows from the rubber tree, but alas, it isn't so: "gutta-percha" is from Malay, "getah", "tree sap".)

The Latin family transmuted the "g-" into an "f-", and I wish I could tell you how this happened but I can't; all I know is that it did happen, and the Latin version of "gheu-" was "fundere", "to melt, to pour out".

If you know any French, or if you cook, "fundere" will probably look at least a little familiar: it's the source of French "fondant" and "fondue", both from "fondre", "to melt". ("Fondant" is the masculine present participle of the verb: "fondue" is the feminine past participle.)

Various senses of "fuse" are also from this Latin root, because when two things fuse, they melt and flow into one, and because an electrical fuse is not only made from melted and poured metal, it melts again if its temperature gets too high. "Fuse" words such as "infuse", "perfuse", "diffuse", and "suffuse" (there are others, too) have the same source, as does, of course, "fusion".

"Confuse" and "confound"--synonyms!--also come from "fundere", prefixed with "con-", "together", because when you confuse two things, their meanings are muddled together in your mind.

Since "fundere" means "to pour", "refundere" means, logically, "to pour back", and when you get a refund, the money is poured back into your wallet. It seems very abstract, but "refuse" must also come from this Latin word; when you refuse something, you "pour it back" to the person offering it to you, and the noun "refuse" is garbage--the remnants of something taken, poured back into the environment.

A couple more "fundere" words which are so logical in retrospect but which you might not have expected: "font", a collection of type made from melted and cast lead (the baptismal sense of "font" is unrelated), and "funnel", through which something is poured.

The real surprise in the family, for me, was "futile". Really? Really! Latin "futilis" meant "leaky; easily emptied", so a futile endeavour is as pointless as trying to fill a sieve.


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