or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Bad Thoughts

The other day I wrote about spit versus spit, and then today another visually similar word popped into my head: "spite". I didn't actually think there could be any relationship, because first of all, there's no overlap in meaning*, and second, I can't think of a single short-vowel-becomes-long-vowel-with-the-addition-of-'e' pair that's related**, so I couldn't imagine why this one should be any different.

And it isn't. "Spite" (an awful word, one I'm sorry we even need to have in the language, meaning "a malicious desire to cause minor harm or humiliation to") is a shortened form of "despite", which from the look of it you could correctly guess must be French. It comes by way of Latin, which is hard to imagine--it doesn't look particularly Latinate--until you learn that it is related to "despicable", and the "-spic-" is a variant of "-spec-", from "specere", "to look at". And then it all becomes clear: "de-" plus "specere" means "to look down on", which is (sometimes literally) what you do to things you despise; the related French "despit" and English "spite" are the nasty little feelings you have towards those people and things.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has the simultaneously marvellous and chilling note:

Almost became despight during 16c. spelling reform.

The prepositional phrase "in spite of" no longer shows even a trace of its past in daily use, but is simply a neutral phrase meaning "notwithstanding": it is also of course an extended use this word, as a literal translation of the French phrase "en despit de", "in contempt of", but worn smooth from centuries of use.

* You could easily cobble together a faux etymology if you were so inclined: you spit on people for whom you have a feeling of spite.

**There might be some. I just ran through about twenty possible pairs in my head and couldn't find a match. Even the likeliest candidates--"glob/globe", "jib/jibe"--are unrelated.


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