or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, March 27, 2009


Once again yesterday at the gym I was listening to the History of Ancient Rome (I'm up to lecture 34 of 48--they had a lot of history back in those days), and the lecture used the word "erase" a couple of times in a previous lecture, but, being Irish, he pronounced it "eraze". (I've heard a pronunciation like this on occasion, and not just from UK speakers: Canadians tend to pronounce the word with a hard ess, but sometimes will pronounce "erasure" as "e-raze-ure".)

All this, naturally, set my mind a-wondering: could "erase" in fact be related to "raze"? I mean, it doesn't have to be: it's not necessary that it be. It's not even altogether obvious: the words have meanings related at least tangentially, but stranger coincidences have happened in the history of the language. Just the other day, after all, we had two completely identical words, both "repair", which nevertheless came from two different sources: "erase" and "raze" could have been the product of the same sort of coincidence.

They aren't, though. Both come from Latin "radere", "to scrape", which also, as even the least thought will suggest (if you haven't already divined it from "raze"), must have given birth to "razor", which scrapes the stubble from your skin. To raze a building or other structure is to demolish it and scrape it clean down to the ground on which it was built: to erase something from a document originally meant to scrape the ink off the parchment or vellum, and now simply means to remove it by some mechanical means. (When I was in school, what's commonly called an eraser--a little pink or white oblong for removing pencil marks--was called a rubber, because that's what it used to be made of, though now it's invariably synthetic. Nowadays a rubber is something else altogether, and an eraser is always an eraser.)

It seems that "radere" descended from Indo-European "red-", "to gnaw, to scrape", a word which also gives English the rodent which gnaws (the connection to "rat" is postulated but uncertain) and the rash which we scratch away at.


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