or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, June 06, 2008

Straight and Narrow

Yesterday I was talking about "reckless" and mentioned in passing some straight-and-narrow words such as "correct" and "direct". These all stem from Indo-European "reg-", "to move in a straight line", which has some reasonable derivations meaning "to lead; to rule". Some of them are predictable, and some of them are completely out of left field.

All the "-rect-" words and their relatives are from this source: "rectitude", "recto" ("right side" or "right-hand page", the opposite of "verso", "flip-side" or "left-hand page"), "rector", "rectify", and "rectilinear"; "regent" ("one who leads"), "regime", "regimen", "regiment", and "region". Have you ever in your life heard the word "porrect" before? Me neither, but it really exists: it's from the prefix "pro-", "forward", plus our stem, and it means "projecting horizontally". It's the counterpart to "erect". There: something to startle people with!

A commoner word, but one you wouldn't expect to be from "reg-", is Greek "anorexia". Follow me: "reg-" refers to straight lines, and therefore to things stretched out in single file. Greek "oreg-" means "to reach for", which is to say "to stretch out one's arms towards". "Orexis" means "longing", an obvious extension of the word. "Anorexia", therefore, means "not longing for", because the original meaning was the loss of desire to eat. Nowadays it means the deliberate imposition of the will against the desire to eat: its full name is "anorexia nervosa", to distinguish it from the inability or disinclination to eat due to physical illness.

"Oreg-", by the way, suggests "oregano", which might lead you (or least me) to conjecture that oregano stems are tall and reach for the sun, or something like that, but there's no connection: the word comes from "origan", previously Latin "origanum", from Greek "origanon", and beyond that nothing is known. "Origan" also suggests French "ouragan", the sibling of English "hurricane", which derived from Spanish "huracan", but there certainly isn't a connection there (unless, say, Aristotle believed that oregano caused hurricanes, which is not much stranger than the things he did believe): the Spanish took the word from the West Indies "hurakan". Initial "h-" and "f-" were often interchangeable in Spanish of the period, which is why Hernando and Fernando are the same name: "hurricane" entered English in a number of different forms in the sixteenth century (depending on which Spaniard the user was quoting), including "forcane", "harrycain", and "hurleycane".

How easily one gets off the track!

Other "leader" words similar to "regent" above are "regal", "regulation", "regicide", "rex", "royal", "viceroy", "raj" and "maharajah" (those two from Sanskrit), and "reign". German "Reich" and the ending of "bishopric" both come from words meaning "realm", "richi" in Old High German and "rice" in Old English: this latter is related to French "riche", the source of English "rich".

Then we have a little clutch of straight-line words from Latin "regula", "straight piece of wood": "regular" and "regulate", and also "rail". The "-rog-" words come from Latin "rogare", "to ask" ("to stretch out the hands for"): "abrogate" and "arrogate" ("to take back" and "to take without warrant" respectively), "interrogate", "prerogative", and "rogation" (a sort of religious supplication).

There are others ("source"! "ergo"!), but honestly, that's plenty for one day.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's probably not news to you, but some people attribute the change of f-initial words to h in Spanish to contact with Euskera, which has no F sound. Though some disputing scholars mention that f->h sound changes are a fairly phenomenon across languages.

More salient F->H examples are hacer (to make or do, Catalan fer), hablar (to talk, Eng. fable), hijo (son, Port. filho), horno (oven, but Sp. infierno, hell), harina (flour, Catalan farina), hongo (mushroom, fungus), and hoja (leaf, Eng. (port)folio and Fr. feuille). One of the odd topics of my linguistics class that I remember vividly.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008 3:39:00 PM  

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