The Languages of Europe: A Cultural Introduction

A Cultural Introduction to the Languages of Europe

Prof. Joseph E. Garreau


     I’ll begin with a little story, a true story that tells you about A German feels about an Italian, more exactly how a young German driving a German car felt about an Italian automobile. That was in the summer of 1961, I was hitchhiking on my way to Innsbruck, in Austria, to join a group of German and Austrian friends I had met at the university of Louvain in Belgium where I was a student at the time and go hiking with in the Austrian Alps.  A young German salesperson in a blue Volkswagen, not the bettle but the 1500  squareback of old, picked me up on the German autobhan on his way to Munich. There was no speed limit on the autobahn in those days, and I still can see the needle past the 150 km mark, and that was fun ... Suddenly a red Alfa-Romeo sped by at about 170, 180... like a bolide (a French word from Latin bolis, from Greek bolis  like a missile (or a missile). We both looked silently at the vanishing beauty.  Then, my German driver said to me in perfectly intelligeable French :  you see – he was talking about the fast and flashy Alfa-Romeo, that is the girl to love, but THIS, adding a gentle tap to the steering wheel of his reliable VW (pronounced “FaVé”) IS the girl to marry.


     This true example shows how Germans see Italians : nothing in their view replaces Teutonic reliability. Italian women may be beautiful, fancy Italian cars are perhaps very fast, but we Germans prefer German engineering!  A big difference!


     Here is another important notation: One of the major cultural differences between northern Europe (Scandinavian countries, Benelux, British Isles, Austria and Germany) and southern Europe (Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece) is the way to conduct business, namely on a much more concessus-type approach in the north  whereas it’s a more autocratic and authoritarian, - understand “bossy-type” in the south.  Human nature may be the same everywhere but we do not think or act alike. The’re is, for example, an expression in Dutch  ‘een zuideneuropees leventje’, which says it well. It can be translated as something like “a little life from the south of Europe” that is to say an easy life without problems.


     We never must not forget the “weight” of European history : centuries of wars between the British and the French, the French and the Germans, the British and the Irish, the British and  the Dutch. Why do you think we still say in English “to talk like a Dutch uncle” or “to go Dutch”?  This is just a reminder of the time when the rivalry in international commerce between these two sea powers was high. Dutch courage, for the British, is the courage of the drunkards, a Dutch wife is (“pardon my French”) a bitch of a wife.


     In the late Middle Ages, when the lingua franca was Latin, there were already a series of formulae more or less proverbial, in which were expressed stereotypes, which already were a form of linguistic racism.  The most often quoted of these examples is the one about the multilingual Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1500-1558) and what language he would employ.  If he wanted to talk to men, the Emperor said, he would speak French; if he wanted to speak to ladies, he would speak Italian; to speak to his horse, he would speak German and, if he wanted to talk to God, he would speak Spanish.  This is, of course, the Franco-Spanish version of the anecdote ; for the Italians, Italian, of course, is the language of men and French the effeminate language.  .  . German is also ill-treated in another proverb that goes back to the XVIIth century: “German howls, English cries, French sings, Italian plays the comedy, and Spanish talks.”


     • Let’s begin with the French and see how other languages treat them.  English first. Sure, we find ‘French cuisine’, ‘French dressing’ , ‘French fries’,  but immediately after, in alphabetical order: ‘French kiss’, ‘French lover’, ‘to take the French leave’, and other pejorative expressions, such as the ‘pardon my French’ just mentioned...


     Spanish  treats the French a bit more generously. They say ‘desperdirse a la francesa’,  (which means without saying good bye), the same as the Germans say ‘sich auf französich empfehlen’ (to escape the French way), which, in both cases seem to have been borrowed from English.


     The Dutch may say about the French and their cuisine :  Leven als God in Frankrÿk’, that is to say : live like God in France,  but they also nasty things about them: ‘Franse complimentem maken’ (to compliment the French way, that is say, ‘to flatter’),  ‘Met de Franseslag’ (in the French manner, that is to say sloppy), and here is another one: ‘Parÿse opvattingen’ (Parisian ideas, which means allowing all kinds of debauchery).


     The Danes are nor far behind: ‘frankske artikler’ (French articles, no! not le, la, les, but condoms). The French, on the other hand, used to say - for the now all too-common préservatifs -  ‘capotes anglaises’ (= ‘English raincoats’). For the Danes, ‘franske postkort’ (French postcards mean erotic postcards).  Here is another one: ‘franske ydelser’ (French benefits, by which, you must understand, mean not taxable).


     From all this we gather a rather negative image of the French: flatterers, lazy and debauched for the Dutch; with a reputation for “taking the French leave”,  not very trustworthy in a word.  Or again, take the English dictionary and what it says in a Shakespeare’s concordance at the word French: “the lusty French”, “the false French, “the fearful French”.


     Truly, the French have had bad press.  As individuals they are much like anyone else, some good, some bad. But everyone has the same gripe about the French as a nation : that they’re arrogant. Even the English and the Germans think so, and they should know. They complain that the French act if they had invented culture, as if no one else could cook with élan, write poetry with panache, or behead aristocrats with finesse.  For proof of French arrogance, people say, one need look no further than their generous contribution to the lexicon of snobbery, to which they have donated nouveau riche, parvenu, arriviste, petit bourgeois, faux pas and chauvinist, among others.


     Now, what about the English?


     The French say ‘capotes anglaises’, and the English reciprocate with ‘French letter’.  In slang, you’ll hear the expression ‘les Anglais ont débarqué’ or ‘avoir ses Anglais’  (in reference to the red uniform of the British army in the XVIIIth century.  For the French, the English are also des rostbifs, whereas the Dutch prefer to say ‘Engels gaar’, cooked the English way, that is to say badly prepared. But it’s mostly their supposed coolness that seems to dominate with stereotyped expressions such as : ‘Engels flegma’ in Dutch, le flegme britannique, or as they say in Danish “stive englændere’’, the ‘stiff English’.


     More seriously, what does this mean? Let’s try to make sense out of this.


     When you look at all these stereotyped expressions, which are like fossils or traces of times past, what do we see?


1. First, the profusion of popular ways to name people living on the other side of the border, based on their food habits: froggies or frogs, rosbifs, Krauts or sausage eaters, or macaroni or pizza eaters, with a geography based on four poles: overcooked roastbeef in England, saucisse and cabbage in Germany, frogs and escargots in France, and pasta and more pasta in Italy.


2. The second picture we get is simply the way the English talked about their neighbors, the French, the Dutch, and the Irish.  You know some of these expressions about the Irish : ‘Irish bull’, ‘to get on’e Irish up’. In other words, these pejorative expressions are like fossils, traces of times past, reflecting the ideological look that the British cast on their former enemies and that have been kept in the language without, many times, any thought of offending anyome anymore.


3. There is a third form of racism prevalent in Europe, racism against foreigners.  Just think of the word we use in French, Italian, Spanish for a foreigner: étranger, straniere, extraño, the word means both foreign and strange.  In the Romance languages, the word for ‘stranger’ also means foreigner, outsider.  It has a clear ‘them and us’ distinction.


     Since the1950s, many new strangers have come to Europe –

Turks, Indians, Africans and Arabs - ‘guest’ workers are they’re call in German or former colonial subjects, some of whom are now in Belgium, France or England second generation Europeans.  But there is a widespread reluctance to accept them as fellow Europeans. The Italian press has found a novel way of calling these people. They call them extracommunitarios, meaning from outside the European community, which disregards the large number who are European citizens. The expression has caught on, but in shortened form: they’re call the extras.


     To me this outwardly innocuous little word (“extras”)  is more dangerous than froggies or Krauts or rosbifs.  Names can always hurt you. Sometimes they stick, sometimes people become what you call them. It’s been 1500 years since the Vandals devastated Gaul but - what do you think the word ‘vandalism’ come from? – they still get the blame for graffiti and broken public toilets.


     There is indeed a paradox, Frogeaters, Rosbifs, Krauts, Macaronieters and others, in short the very people who call themselves names, are working toward a European Union and, at the same time, they don’t seem to stop making fun of each other.


[TO BE REWORKED] Is there is hope, it is with the young people of Europe required to study two foreign languages in school and having constant student exchanges. To study another language is to mold yourself into another view of the world, and go farther in your perception of the ‘other’, deeper than the fact he or she eats frog legs, cabbage, spaghetti or roast beef. This will take years.  And whatever form the European Union takes, the non-flattering portrait is not going to fade away in one or two generations.





E u r o p e a n  E t y m o l o g i e s




1. Some Examples


     Etymology : from Gr.etumos   (true) and logia   (science or study that deals with a certain subject) is the study of the origin, formation, and development of a word.  Semantics  is the study of meaning in language forms, particularly with regard to its historical change.


     Whisky  < Gaelic uisce  (which is pronounced [ishgui] and means water.

In a similar fashion, vodka  is the diminutive of Russian voda, which also means water and can be compared to French eau-de-vie  or Spanish agua ardiente.


      • Carnaval < carnem levare  = to take meat away = allusion to the meatless days of Lent. Cf. carême, < quadragesima dies  (fortieth day), end of Christ’s fast in the desert.


     Marshal  (high officer of state, of the army, in charge of ceremonies)

 < OF. mareschal  (mod. maréchal)  < OHG.marah  (horse) and scalc  (servant) = he who takes care of horses.


     Pantaloon > pants, F. pantalon < San Pantal(e)one, a favorite saint in Venice, whose name means “all misericordious” (pan eleimon  in Gr.) ; then a Venitian caracter in Italian comedy represented as a foolish old man (xvi); breeches in fashion after the Restoration (xvii); tight-fitting trousers which superseded knee-breeches (xviii); trousers in general (xix).


     Belladonna  = “fair lady”: medicinal plant containing atropine, the propriety of which is to dilate the pupils of your eyes. Said to be so named because in Italy (xv) a face cosmetic was made from it, making the lady beautiful = bella donna.


     Symposium = “drink together”; initially a banquet. (same word: potion).                                         

     Pregnant,   Sp. incincta  < from Latin etymology meaning wearing no belt.

     Stallion , Fr. étalon  < (ad stallum)  = at the stall, i. e. reserved for reproduction.


     Porcelain  > china ware < porcella , diminutive of porca: sow: - porca, fem. of porcus  swine; originally the shiny shells are said to have been so named from their resemblance to the vulva of a sow.  Fr. procelaine,  It. porcellana.  [porcus < (0)F porc > pork: flesh of the pig used as food (xiii)].

     Book. In English, the word book  is related to beechtree. In Russian, beech  is said bouk. In German, a letter from the alphabet is Buchstab, which literally means a beech stick; letters were inscribed on such sticks.


     • In Romance languages (Sp. and It. libro,  Fr. livre > librairie >  Engl. library), the word comes from Latin liber,  i.e. the thin part of the tree between the cork and the sapwood, which is used as paper.


     • The same vegetal origin is found in the word paper  < papyrus. This Egyptian reed is also at the origin of the city of Byblos in Lebanon, which gave the word bible. It is interesting to note that exceptionally the word parchment  

(< Fr. parchemin) is not linked to the vegetal world, etymologically it means “Parthian skin”  i.e. writing material prepared from skins invented at Pergamum in Asia Minor.



2. Names of Monetary Units


[TO BE REVIEWED – add story of the Euro Ï ]


     • The dollar  is a deformation through bad pronounciation of the word Thaler, old German currency. The word comes from Joachimst(h)aler and the Joachim’s valley in Bohemia where mines were exploited to make silver coins.


     • In Germany, the name mark  comes from the mark that identifies the coins, such as the écu , i.e. the shield struck on old French coins of the same name, which is found in the Portuguese escudo. (ecu  = European Currency Unit.)


     • The franc  is the beginning of the inscription from the legend Francorum rex  = king of the Franks, on gold coins first struck in the reign of Jean-le-Bon (1350-64). We may compare it with the future European currency, the Euro, which is also a prefix.


     • Many names of monetary units are linked to the idea of weight, the weight of a precious metal, usually gold. Peseta  (peso) < Spanish silver coin : dim. of pesa  weight. (from L. pensa,  pl. of pensum  > poise,  to ponder, peser). < Pound  = £ ( French reminiscence of livre  = pound). Same in Italian (Turkish, Lebanese) with lira.


     • British penny   and German Pfennig  are the same word, probably from Latin pannus, a cloth (pieces of cloth were in Barbarian Europe used as a medium of exchange).


     • The florin  (Netherlands) is a gold coin first issue at Florence in 1252. It. fiorino,  from fiore  flower; the coin originally so named bore the figure of a lily on the obverse.


     • The Russian ruble  comes from the verb roubit  (to share, to partake). A ruble  is a “parcel” of gold.


     • The dinar  of some Arabic countries is the equivalent of the old Latin currency thedenary,  whereas the Morrocan dirham  is the Greek drachma ; the rial  is the king’s money: the réal. Denary, drachma, rial  all are European names.


     • The Haïtian gourde  comes from Spanish gordo : big amount of money!



3. Names of Peoples and their Languages


     • The Germanic tribe called the Franks, whose chief was Clovis, gave the French  their name. In many foreign languages the name remains the same, simply deformed or “disfigured” by local phonetics and the different endings of the adjective form: Engl: French, Ger. Franzose, It. Francese, Sp. Francés, 

Slavic Frantsouz, Arabic Fransaoui,  etc.

     • In Finnish, where are not used words beginning two consonants, the omission of the intial [F] in France, gives the name Ranska.

     • The Japanese insert the letter u  between f  and r, which gives Furansu.

     • The Chinese utilize an [a], which gives fa-lan-sa, shortenend in fa. The ideogram, i.e. the Chinese character that represents this fa  means “law”. A Frenchman: fa-guo-ren  [fakwojen] = “a man from the country of the law”.

     • The Greeks, who are an old people, retain the Gallic name, i.e. the one preceding the invasions of the Frank tribes. France = Gallika.


     • Germans are designated by one or the other of the Germanic tribes that settled in Germany, or in Allemagne  (from the Alemanni)  as we say in French. In the first case, the generic term of German  is used, in the latter the name of a group of Germanic tribes, the Alemanni, who were defeated by the Franks in 496. The Sandinavians use the name Saksa  (Saxons). The name Teuton, which means people or tribe in Celtic, is at the origin of what the Germans call themselves: Deutsch  (< Lat. Theudisca ) or its Italian equivalent:Tedesco.


     • The Russians call the Germans Nemtsy  (Nemets  in the singular), perhaps because they occupy territories situated beyond the Niemen  river; or perhaps because they are “mute”(niémoï)  for the Russians!


     • Many peoples name their neighbors by using a pejorative term, which often stays with them for ever. Examples: The Greeks call “Barbaroi” those who did not speak their language, and consequently were the equivalent of savages.

Similarly, for a long period of time, the Western world considered North Africa populated by “barbaric” peoples and name them Berbers, who named themselves (in the singular form) Tamazight  i.e. free man or Kabyle , i.e. man of the tribe.



     Names can always hurt you. Sometimes they stick, sometimes people become what you call them. Wales is from welisc, the Saxon term for foreigner. Or the Gypsies, so called because they said they had come from Egypt. A last example: It’s been 1500 years since the Vandals - where  do you think the word vandalism come from? devastated Gaul but they still get the blame for graffiti and broken public toilets!      


4.  Days of the Week and Months of the Year


     • The days of the week very often are named according to their numerical order; thus in Portuguese: segunda feira  (second fair) is Monday  and so on until sexta feira  (sixth fair), i.e. Friday. Saturday and Sunday retain their religious reference: sabado  (sabbath), and domingo  (Sunday), day of the Lord (Dominus  in Latin).


     • In English and in German, Sunday /Sonntag is the day of the sun; Monday / Monntag is the day of the moon = lundi; lunedi; Tuesday is the day of Mars, god of war and fire; Wednesday, mercredi = day of Mercury, god of commerce and trade, or in English day of Wotan, Germanic god of war. In German, as in Russian, Wednesday is the middle of the week (Mittwoch). Thurday, day of Jupiter (in Latin Jovis dies), is Donnerstag, literally day of Thunder, the latter being the attribute of Jupiter. In English, Thursday is derived from thunresday  <thunder. Friday, (French: vendredi,  day of Venus), is equally devoted to woman in both English and German (Freitag):  i.e. the day of Frigg, the spouse of the god Wotan. Saturday is the day of the planet Saturn.


     • The names of the months have a great unity in European languages. The first months of the year originate in names of gods, goddesses, emperors or Roman holidays, such as Janus  for January, februa,  feast of the Purification, for February; Mars  for the god of war; Maius, god of vegetation; Junius  for June; Julius  (Caesar) for July; Augustus  for August. The last months are a reference to their numerical order in the old Roman calendar, which began in March with the arrival of spring, from Sept-tember  (seventh month) until Dec -ember  (tenth month).


     • Finnish is a very rare exception. The names of the months are linked to nature. Thus there is the month of the oak tree, seeding, wheat or mud, which somewhat resembles the calendar used by the French Revolution (fructidor, ventôse, etc.)


5. Names of Persons


     • Are of Semitic origin first names ending in -el, which is the root of Allah, meaning God. Names, such as Michael, Emmanuel, Daniel, Raphaël, have the meaning of “similar to God”, “God with us”, “God has judged” , “God has healed”. . .

     • First names originating in Greek are mostly compound names: Veronica : “the true icône i.e. image; Christopher: “carrying Christ” ; Philip: “who loves horses”; Eugene: “of a good race”; Alexander  “defender of men”. One also finds simple first names: Stephen (Stefano, Etienne crown; Basil, equivalent to Vassili: :the king; Catherine: the pure; (Cf. the Cathars); Sophia, wisdom (cf. philósophos: : lover of wisdom).   


     • Latin first names, examples: Cesar, Julius, Antony, Aimé, René(e): reborn through baptism, Felix: happy, Victor: victorius.


     • First names of Germanic origin come from pagan names of men (and women) who were later canonized by the Church; Richard: hard king;  Karl / Charles: manly;  Hugh: intelligence;  Albert (Adal berht): noble and brillant.


     • For your curiosity: In the Caribbean (Lesser Antilles), it was customary in colonial times to give as a first name the one figuring on the calendar. So you could have Fetnat  (for those born on July 14, Fête nationale) or Immaculéon  (December 8) or Pievépape  (Pie V, pape).


6. Family Surnames


     • In Europe, family names, much more recent that first names, appeared when a registry for baptism and, later on, a civil registry, were kept. Nobles, usually, bore the name of their estate (Michel de Montaigne), whereas people of the common adopted as patronym such and such particularity: character trait, physical appearance, or a personal designation which had passed into a professed trade. Some examples of names of trade: Le febvre  < Latin faber  (Cf. fabricate); Schneider  in German is the same as Taylor  in English; Cooper   is one who makes and repairs casks; Thatcher  is one who makes or repairs roofs, especially with straw; Eisenhauer (Eng. Eisenhower), one who strikes iron.


     • Among the many traits indicating physical appearance, examples (in French) are many: Boiteux  (Lame), Têtu  (Stubborn), Lecourt  (The Short), Lelong,  Lenoir, Leblond.  Are numerous also names indicating a geographical origi, or names linked to a particularity of the land: Deschamps  (from the fields), Duchêne  (of the oak tree), Dubois  (of the woods), - as well as Siobud, Dubois written backwards. Maisonneuve  (of the new house). In English, we have Churchill:  hill of the church, Copperfield:  field of copper.


     • It is interesting to note also how some Jewish names of people who have settled in Europe have been modified. Some have retained the name of the religious function, such as Cohen, Levi, Kaplan  (priest assistant), others have chosen a name linked to the emblem of the tribe to which they were attached. Thus, the tribe of Juda, whose emblem is the lion, have given in German names such as Löwen. The Nephtali tribe, whose emblem is the deer, has given many Hirsh  families, or the wolf of the Benjamin tribe, people by the name ofWolf.  Jacob  evokes in the Bible the story of Jacob at the well; in the Netherlands, in translation, we may find people by the name of Putteman  (from Latin puteus, “people from the well”, Eng. pit, Sp. pozo, It. pozzo. Hence in Italy people by the name of Pozzo.

     A well-known French last name is that ofVeil,  simply the anagram of Levi.. In the Caribbean, there are names such as Manlius,  from the Roman centurion awaken by the geese of the Capitol, or names such as Balicoups  (baille-lui des coups = beat him up), whose ancestor probably must have been in charge of administering corporal punishment.


7. Some Examples of Toponymy.


     Istanbul  (the ancient Constantinople  = Constantinopolis:  the city of Constantine) owes its supposed etymology to the Greek phrase Eistan polis,  “here is the city” said by a Turk. But it may as well be the simple deformation of Constantinopolis.


     Naples < Neapolis : “new city”.  Saragossa  < deformation of “Caesar Augustus”; Badajoz  < Paz de Agosto: “peace of Augustus”. Many Spanish names have an Arabic origin: Valladolid  (i.e.  Belad el-walid) is “the country of the father”; in Grenada the Alhambra  is al-hamra (the red), from the color of the stone used to construct the palace. Guadalajara, oued el-Haraja, is “the river of pebbles”. Cadiz  bears a Phoenician name, a deformation of Gaddir (wall), which we find in the Berber city of Agadir  in Morroco.


     • In Portugal, the capital city of Lisbon  (Lisboã), according to some philologists, stands for Olisippo, “the city of Ulysses”, and, according to others, Alisibbo,  a Phoenician name meaning “good harbor”.The province of Algarve originates in the Arabic al-gharb  (the west), which we find in Maghreb,  lit. “where the sun sets” i.e. the west. Trafalgar (Taraf al-Gharb) = “direction of the west”.

     • In Greece, Athens owes its name to Athena,  daughter of Zeus, goddess of Art & Thought. Thessaloniki comes from the name of Alexander the Great’ s sister.

     • in Germany, Munich or München, evokes the word “monk” (in OHG munih). Köln  bears a Roman name: the ancient Colonia  (in French, Cologne) Agrippinensis. Similarly, Koblenz  draws its name from the Latin Confluentes, the cofluent of Rhine and Mosell. Mainz  (Mayence) is a bit more complicated: it is the old Moguntiacum, from the name of a Celtic god, known as Mogo.


     Austria  (Autriche) is a deformed pronunciation of Österreich, “Orient Empire”. Its capital, Vienna, is a simplification fromVindobona, a pre-Latin appellation meaning “white location”.

     Zurich  (in Latin Duriacum ) comes from the Celtic root*dur , which means water,  the same as in contemporary Breton. Basel  (Bâle) was in Greek Basilea, the royal (city).

     Luxembourg  is also a deformation, that of Lützelburg : small protected castle.


     • In the Netherlands,  (Holland < holt : woods  = a “wooded land”), the names of cities ending in -dam  evoke a dam or a barrier constructed across a waterway. Amsterdam is “the Amstel dam”.


     • In Belgium, the city of Mons  (a Flemish appellation of “monts” = mounts), not surprisingly, is called Bergen  in Flemish, i.e. “mounts”. Brussels, originally Bruoc Sella, is composed of Broek  (marshes) and seli  (dwelling). In Flemish, Antwerpen  (Anvers), means “with piers / jetties running out into the sea”.


     • In Denmark, literally “march --  [from Frankish *marka  i.e. “boundary] - of the Danes”, the capital Copenhagen (København)  means “port of merchants”, (cf. German kaufen, to buy).


     • In Iceland, “ice country”, the name of its capital, Reykjavik, means “smoking bay”. (Reyk  has the same root as German rauchen, to smoke.


     • Sweden owes its local name of Sverige  to the Varangian people, one of a group of Scandinavian seafarers who established a dynasty in Russia in the ninth century.

     • In Great Britain, if we’re not sure of the origin of the name London, we know that Oxford
  means what is says: the ford of the oxen, the Greek equivalent of which is Bosporus.  All the endings in -chester  (Winchester, Manchester...) originate in Latin castra  (camp). The Essex county is “the country of the Saxons from the east” in opposition to Sussex, which is “that of the Saxons from the south”.


     • In France, many cities bear the names of peoples or tribes, whether  Gallic or not.  (Parisii)  > Paris, Angers, Nantes, Poitiers, etc.. Many places bear also a religious name: Saint-Brieuc, Saint-Malo.  Sometimes, the name suggests a monastery, Moutiers, or a specific cult (Montmartre : mount of martyrs). Some towns have their names linked to a person: Orléans evokes the emperor Aurelianum. Châteauroux is “le château de Raoul ; Cherbourg comes from Caesaris burgus:  the village of Caesar. In Normandy, the names of cities ending in -fleur  are a deformation of the Scandinavian word fjord ; for example, Barfleur  = “the creek in the shape of a wedge ; Dieppe,  simply means “deep”. In the East, the names ending in -wy  originate from Latin vicus,  meaning village; Longwy  = “the long village”. The English equivalent, even closer to original Latin, is-wick  (ex. Gatwick, the “Goat Farm”)  or -wich  (ex. Greenwich).


     • To conclude: Indo-Europeans, more than other peoples perhaps, appear to exalt the cult of personality. The Greek emperor Alexander, for example, gave his name to Alexandria  (Egypt), Qandahar  (India), Iskenderun  (Turkey). Roman emperors have been particularly celebrated. Just in France, we have Orléans  (<Aurelianus), Grenoble  (Gratianopolis), Coutances  (<Constantia), Cherbourg  (Caesaris burgus). We find the name of Caesar  in Israel (Césarée), Kayseri  (Turkey), Jerez  (Spain); Augustus in Augsburg  (Germany), Aoste  (Italy), Badajoz  (Spain), Famagouste  (Cyprus), or, with both names together, Saragossa  (Caesar Augustus). Saints, all over Europe, have also given their names to many cities and towns.

     We’ve seen the same cult of personality in former USSR, but it lasted just the time of a revolution! Leningrad   has returned to its previous Saint-Petersburg.  Outside Europe we have, of course, Washington, Harare (Zimbabwe) after the name of a tribal chief, Hochiminhville (formely Saïgon).


     Finally, in topology, God seems to be less present than his saints.  In France, we have Villedieu  (The City of God), in Sweden, Göteborg, ... and that’s about it. Let’s mention alsoAllahabad  in India and Bagdad  in Irak.




     The languages from the Indo-European group, i.e a family of some 132 diverse but related tongues that range from Armenian to Swedish, are spoken by half of humanity. The most distant ancestor that we can study is Sanskrit, one of the first languages of written culture.


     Let’s begin by examining the mysterious family ties that link languages as diverse as Russian, English, Latin, Greek, Hindi, Bengali, Singhalese, French and others. The most known example of similarity of that of numbers, where the systematic character of variations helps us prove that we are not talking about coincidences but family resemblance.


     Let us select English, German, Spanish, French, Greek, Russian, Persian, and Bengali (8 languages)


      EN      GER          SP             FR             GR            RU            PER          BEN


1    one     eins          uno          un             énas          odin         yek            êk

2    two     zwei         dos            deux         dio            dva           do             dui

3    three  drei           tres           trois          tris            tri                            tin

4    four    vier          cuatro      quatre      tésséris     tchetyrié  tchahar    car [tshar]

5    five     fünf          cinco        cinq          penté        piat’          pandj    panc [pantch]

6    six       sechs        seis           six             heksi        shest         shish    choe [chhoy]

7    seven sieben      siete          sept           hepta        siem         haft           shat

8    eight   acht          ocho         huit          okto          vosiem    hasht        at

9    nine   neun        nueve      neuf         énia          déviat      no             noe

10  ten      zehn         diez          dix            déka         désiat       dah           dosh

hundred  hundert   ciento       cent          hékaton   sto             sad            shô







1. Woman...


• At the origin, we don’t find “Adam’s rib” but an Indo-European root: *dhé  (to suck), which we find in the Greek word thêlê (nipple, teat). The Latin felare (same meaning) takes us to the word femina, (femme), by definition “the one who breast feed”. From the same root is the Latin fetus or foetus (pregnancy), which takes us to filiation. (fils, fille, figlio, filho,  Sp. hijo). Hijo  gives us the etymology of the famous hidalgo, the origin of which is hijodalgo,  “son of something”, which is the condition of every being of masculine sex, notwithstanding in vitro  fertilization.


     The literary term fecundity  (borrowed from French fécondité), i.e. fertility, goes back to the same root, but also to felicity  (happiness), since the Latin felix meant fertile and therefore happy (Sp. feliz, It. felice).


     You may be surprised  to discover that Latin fenum, Sp. heno,  It. fieno, Fr. foin  (hay) and Latin fenusculum, (lit. “small hay”), Eng. fennel, French fenouil, Sp, hinojo,  It. finocchio  have the same root. However, this does not tell us why in Italian slang a homosexual is called finocchio.


   (Just a note discovered in a recent British book: “Aside from finocchio,  which is of Florentine origin, the most common pejoratives for gay men in modern Italy are frocio,  more or less equivalent to ‘faggot’, and recchione  (sometimes rendered as ricchione).  The latter originated in Naples and may derive from orecchio  (ear), touching their earlobes being one way that men would signal to others that they were gay. In Mafia slang a gay man is a seicento  (six hundred), a reference to the rear-enginded Fiat 600.” (Your Mother’s Tongue  A Book of European Invective,  by Stephen Burgen, London, 1996, 136)


     Here is how we can show the evolution of the Indo-European roots that take us to femme, Frau, mujer, moglie, dame, donna, doña.


*dhé                           *per                                                                *dem

(to suck)                    (forward)                                                       (domestic)


Latin                          Gothic                        Latin                          Latin


felare                          fra                               mulier                       domus


French     Engl          Ger           Spanish   Italian      French     Italian      Spanish

femme     from         Frau         mujer      moglie     dame        donna      doña


     It’s another Latin root, mulier, that takes us to Spanish mujer, Italian moglie (spouse). The Italian donna  didn’t follow a straight progression road (*dem, in Indo-European, designated the idea of domesticity). This takes us to Latin domus (house) and the master of the house, dominus (master). Thus we have in English (some borrowed from the French) domicile, domain, donjon, dominate, domestic,  etc. 


     The most curious one is the word danger,  directly connected to dominus. In Low, decadent Latin, dominus had given the word dominiarium (dominion) power, which has evolved in French into the form dongier  and has given the expression “estre en dongier”, i.e. to be under the control, or the power of somebody, and therefore . . . in a dangerous situation. The same root dominus reappears in the Spanish title don  (Master), the French dame  et the Italian donna:  by definition la “bella donna” stays home!


     The English woman, for it part, is an alteration of wifeman, the wife of the man, (which is found in the other Germanic languages: Ger. Weib, Dutch wijf, Danish viv ); this at the time when the word man  designated a person of both sexes. In German, the word for woman, Frau, is related or linked to Indo-European *per (forward, through), Greek peri (around), Latin per (through), which in Gothic gave the root fra-  (indicating origine). It gave also the English preposition from.


2. Man, the “terrestrial being”


     In Romance languages, man,  is linked to an Indo-European root *khem-, meaning “earth”. We have in English (from French) the words humus  and humility. Man, by definition, is a “terrestrial” being (by opposition to God, the “celestial” being). However, the Latin term, homo, at its origin designated man and woman, both terrestrial beings. With time, the term became more specific and designated a human being of male sex: homme, hombre, uomo, homem. During the Middle Ages, in Europe, the whole vocabulary of feudality will be based on the same word homo: hommage /homage (homenaje, omaggio, homenagem. Besides homo, Latin also used another term, meaning more specifically of “male sex”, the word vir (related to Indo-European *wir (man), which takes us to such words as: viril, virtue, virtuous. This demonstrates what esteem was granted to the male sex!


     Here is a telling example: in Latin we had the word virago, which originally meant a woman who has the ‘virtu’ i.e. the courage of a man. In today’s French (kept in English), a virago  is “a woman who looks like a man”, i.e. lacking feminity. The fact that this latter word has taken such a pejorative meaning in French, for example, is a clear indication of the type of machismo  or male superiority that took hold in the Mediterranean world. In short, woman cannot compete with man in the domain of virtue! (Or compare the two Spanish expressions: “el hombre de la calle” i. e.  the regular guy , and “una mujer de la calle” i.e. a prostitute).


     In Germanic languages, man  is still more pretentious. His name is linked to the root *men-, which designated the process of thinking. Therefore, English man, German Mann, Danish mand, are all related to the word mind.


                           *men                                           *khem

                                    “thought”                                   “earth”


                                    Gothic                                             Latin

                                     man                                            homo

                                    “I think”


Engl    Dutch   German   Danish               French  Italian   Spanish  Portuguese

man   man     Mann       mand                 homme  uomo   hombre  homem


     The doublet homo-vir (human species - man) still exists in German: Mann - Mensch, whereas it has disappeared in English and in Romance languages. Remains a “small” problem: that of human rights! When we say in French les droits de l’homme,  or in Italian diritti dell’uomo, do we mean to include the rights of the woman  as well? German says: Menshenrechte, the same as English human rights, and Spanish derechos humanos.  Canadian French found the solution by saying droits de l’être humain.

     Concluding on a light note, on could argue that man  seems less important than woman, since the word man  has given the indefinite derivative: one  in English, on  in French, (based on the simplification homo > omo >om >on)  and German man,  which means one, people,  as in Man spricht deutsch , lit.: One speaks German. Some German feminists however are not happy with this abusive use of the indefinite and have proposed to replace man  by Frau!


3.  Father and Mother


     The pair father-mother  constitutes one of the most telling examples of the “family links” betwen Indo-European languages. Indeed, when we consider the following chart, it’s hard to doubt *pater -*matr were the original Indo-European roots. Let’s start with Sanskrit, Greek and Latin; then from the Romance language side and Old English and Old German to modern English, German, Danish and Dutch.


Sanskrit: pitar-matar                                  Old English: faeder-modor

Greek: pater-mêtêr                                     Old High German: fater-muoter

Latin: pater-mater                                       Danish: fader-moder

French: père-mère  `                                   Dutch: vader-moeder

Italian: padre-madre                                  German: Vater-Mutter

Port.:  padre-madre                                     English: father-mother

Span.: padre-madre


     We notice the phonetic equivalencies originating in the Indo-European *p ; we notice also that the *m initial remains unchanged. However, this does not mean that father  and mother  are two invariant, i.e. unchanged notions through centuries of evolution. Everything leads us to believe that there was, in early Indo-European languages, no present day parallelism between our words father  and mother.


     The Indo-European *pater is the chief, father as well as priest or boss, whereas *matr denominates all the women within a social cell, mother as well as female servants and slaves. The emphasis is placed on the father, whose social importance is overvalued in relation to the mother. Here is an example: etymologists have been able to reconstruct a whole set of vocabulary to designate the man’s family, such as “mother of the husband”, “father of the husband”, “sister of the husband”, “wife of the husband’s brother”, etc., without being able to reconstruct anything similar on the woman’s side.


     Incidendally - feminists would say not surprisingly- this over-valuation of the importance of the father is far from being universal: in a semitic language like Arabic for example, one finds the same root for the word mother, the word um, and the idea of community of all Muslims, or that of nation: the word umma. In Hebrew, the Jews for example, consider that only the mother can transmit “Jewishness” to the chidren.






      Greek       Latin                                                 West Germanic       N. Germanic

      mêter       mater            


French   Italian   Spanish   Portuguese              English   German    Dutch     Danish

mère       madre    madre        madre                   mother      Mutter   moeder moder







      Greek       Latin                                                  West Germanic       N. Germanic

      patêr         pater              


French  Italian Spanish  Portuguese                  English  Ger  Dutch Danish

père         padre      padre         padre                     father   Vater vader  fader


      In summary, *pater and *matr had a much contrasted lineage. Around the notion of father has developped a system essentially linked to property and its transmission: the father is the garantor of both the land and the property, the well-named patrimony,  he is the protector of the family, therefore the patron  (boss). He transmits the membership, i.e. the idea of belonging to a larger group, which, in Romance languages, took the name of patria  (fatherland). This idea of patria  is everywhere linked to the father, although in English we alternate betwen fatherland and motherland (We always say in French “la mère patrie”).


French        Italian       Spanish                             English          German        


patrie          patria          patria                                fatherland     Vaterland

patrimoine  patrimonio  patrimonio                patrimony    Vatererbe

patron        patrón       padrone                             Patron            patron


     Things are somewhat different on the mother’s side, “the one who gives life”, who guarantees legal maternity (if there are doubts as to who can be the father, there is no doubts when it comes to the mother!). The mother,therefore, symbolizes reproduction. Following these different directions, we find first the idea of marriage, with in Sp., It., Port., the word matrimonio.  (There was also in Old French the word matremoigne, the ancestor of mariage).


     The Latin matrix meant both the female ready to give birth, and, in a larger sense, a stock bearing offshoots (cf. offspring  in English). We have in English the word matrix  used in linguistics or in math; the word matrice  in French means the womb, the uterus. We say in English “to register”and  in Romance languages, e.g. in French, “immatriculer”. This matrix / stock stump leads in Spanish to the word madera, Port. madeiro, (wood), French madrier  (beam), Sp.madero, Port. maddeiro  and It. madrillo, with the same sense. This leads also to the word matter  and material  (Ger. Materie,  Fr. matière,  Sp. materia,  etc. 


4. Emperor, partisan and parents


     The Indo-European root *per, with the sense of procurating, quickly separated into three branches: one that expresses the notion of bringing to the world (Lat. parere), the second, the notion of preparing: parare, and third, the notion of portion, part (Lat. pars).





Latin  parere                                                  Latin  parare                       Latin  pars

(to give birth)                                                (to prepare)                         (part)


parents                                                            to separate                           party

parturition                                                     emperor                              partisan


     In the three cases, the basic idea of procurating remains as the origin of the word: parere (to give birth) is to procurate a child to the husband, parare means to prepare with the intention of giving, and pars designates the part or portion granted to someone. But this basic meaning evolved in three directions.

     1. With parere (to give birth), things are relatively simple: we have the word parent  (Sp. pariente, It. and Port. parente), and in these three languages the word parto,  which in French isaccouchement  and in English delivery  - although we’ve kept the Latin in post-partum depression..


     2. The Latin form parare, for its part, very logically gave in French parer   (It. parare,  Sp. parar)  with the meaning of blocking or stopping, and its derivatives: prepare, repair, separate.  The word appareil (apparel)  is directly linked to the idea of preparation: the word originally means preparations,  before taking its modern sense.


     3.The Latin verb imperare, still derived from parare, had, for his part, taken the sense of “to take measures”, “to direct”, hence, in Latin imperium and imperator, which leads us to empire  and emperor, (empereur, imperador, imperatore).


     Remains pars, which brings to the verb to part, to separate, to partake, hence “to part from somebody” (Port. and Sp. partir, It. partire),  Eng. party.

From there we have the word partisan  (partigiano, partidario):  a militant supporter of a party.


     To complete the family, let’s finish with uncle and aunt. The Indo-European designated inclusively a grandparent with the term *aw, which gave in Latin avus, grandfather, It. avo, Sp. abuelo, and avunculus, i.e. “the mother’s brother”, which gave in French oncle, Eng. uncle. In fact, the Romans distinguished between the paternal uncle (patruus), the maternal uncle, just mentionned,  (avunculus), the paternal aunt (amita), and the maternal aunt (matertera). Two of these terms have disappeared. Remained solely uncle  and aunt  (from amita).      In French, baby-talk transformed the wordante  to tante. (In popular Canadian French, I’m told that they go to a “second degree”, and  say “ma matante ”).

     The Italian zio  and  Spanish tîo  (zia  and tía)  come from Greek theios via Low Latin thius.


5. The children : brothers and sisters


     The latin word infans, which gave the word enfant, infante, infancy,  meant “he who does not talk”. At the origin, there is the root *bha, which gave the Latin verb fari: to talk. By definition infancy  is a very short period of life.


     As for brothers and sisters, we need to go back to *bhrater, which changed into frater in Latin, frère  in French, fratello  in Italian (in the sense of “Frère Jacques”). It corresponds to the Spanish fray   (Fray Luis de León) and the Italian fra  (Fra Angelico). The same root is found in Germanic languages via the Gothic brothar: Eng. brother,  Dutch broeder,  Danish broder.


     The same Indo-European root had given in Greek phratêr, with a slightly different sense: “a member of a phratria”, which gave in old French confrarie,  an association of religious men, modified into confrérie  through the influence of the word frère.


     The word sorella, sister  in Italian, soeur  in French finds its origins in *swes via the Latin soror, whereas Gothic swistar gave English sister,  German Schwester, Dutch zuster, and Danish soster. The Latin term soror had in addition another form, that of sobrinus, which gave cosobrinus, to designate the children of two sisters, which, in turn, led to French cousin  and English cousin. All in the family!


6. Race and Engine/ Engineer


     One Indo-European root, *gen/*gne had a large very progeny (offspring)! The first Latin form corresponding to this root: genere, is found in a whole set of terms, such as to engender  (in Physicsto generate ), engendrer, generation ; as well as the word gens  in French, (Sp. and It. gente), as well as the word gentil (Sp. gentil,  It. gentile,  Engl. genteel). The original sense, of course, was “belonging to the same race”. Then in Church Latin Gentiles came to mean the non-Jews, a calque i.e. a copy on the Hebew word goim. Belonging to “the same gender”, you are necessarily “generous”! 


     From the same root *gen we have finally the word germain  (which we translate in Eng. as cousin), which in French retained at first the sense of “frère” (brother), a sense kept in Spanish in hermano  and Portuguese irmão.


     The French word engin  (which gave engine), which before designating a machine meant skillfulness, dexterity, in a word ingeniosity, gave the word engineer. Surprise? The Sartrean word “néant” (nothingness) has the same origin: néant  <ne gentem:  no one, nothing).


     This prolific root gave in Latin another form, nasci (to be born) and an abundant offspring: the verb naître  in French, (nacer, nascere), aîné  (antius natus = born before) , Noël  (day of birth), nature, nation,  etc.


     The French word imprégner,  Eng. impregnate, which meant in the Middle Ages to fecundate  was confused or mixed up with the word empreindre  (lit. to imprint). We find the same image in Italian and in Spanish with the word pregno  full, and the words for pregnancy, It. prenezza, Sp. preñez.


     Finally there is the Greek form gono-, that we find in a series of technical terms such as gene, genealogy, cosmoginy, genesis, genetic,  etc.


     When we compare all these Greek and Latin terms with the Germanic side, we find only a few. The root *gen is found in the Gothic kunni, tribe, then in English with the word kind (genre, sort) and in German with Kind,  meaning child.


??  genteel




1. Feet and hands


     The word designating the foot is also among the word showing best the continutity of Indo-European languages: from the Indo-European root *ped to Sanskrit pat, to Greek pous-podos and to latin pes-pedis, then to French poed,

Sp. pie, Port.   and It. piede.


     The Gothic fotus, for its part, is at the origin of the word foot, Danish fod, Dutch voet  and German Fuss.




                                                              *p                 *gen-/*gne



            Latin                               Gothic                                       Latin

            genere                            kunni                                       nasci



to generate             genie                                         kin, kind                   Noël

progeny                                                                     Kind                           naïf

genre                       engine                                         pregnant                nature

generous                engineer                                   impregnate               nation




Sanskrit                  Greek                                        Latin                          Gothic

p                                   p                                                 p                                 f


     No surprise in discovering that the same root has produced pédicure (chiropodist), podium. What about pedigree  in English? The word is a deformation of French “pied de grue”. The word “péage”, which we translate as toll, is a payable fee to have the right to set foot. A pionnier,  Eng. pioneer  has also the same root.


     The hand, “on the other hand”, has a less linear story. We have a Greek root, palamê, palma in Latin, which ended in French paume,  the palm of your hand. Hence the series of words such as plaine, planche, llano, llanada, plancha, plato  in Spanis ; piano, pianura, piatto  in Italian.

     From the Latin manus, we have manual, maintenance, manuscript, manoeuvring, manner, mandate, etc. and all their cognates. However the connection between manus and emancipatio is less evident. In Latin, the verb mancipare (to sell), meant to take with the hand. The suffix -cipare, which has the same origin has to chase, had the sense of “catching”. Therefore, emancipation  (ex-mancipare) i.e. freeing of slaves is the opposite of possession.


2. Leg / Gambling & Vaulting Room


     This time, it’s a European root (rather than Indo-European) *kamg, expressing the idea of curvature, (Greek kampê), then of articulation, that leads us to two words with no apparent relations: leg   and room.

     What is called in Frenchjambe  or in Italiangamba  is by definition “that which can bend”, and so is jambon  (ham), Sp. jamón. We have in English, talking of animals - and lottery -- the verb to gambol   (a wild jump into luck?).


     The same root, *kamb, takes us to Greek kamara, a vaulted roof, then to Latin camera, and to the verb derived from it: camerare, “to build in the shape of a vault”. Therefore, by definition, the word chamber, chambre, It. camera, Port. camara, GermanKammer, cannot have a flat ceiling. (The French word plafond  means exactly what it says: plat fond :  flat bottom

     However, whether with flat, vaulted or cathedral ceiling, a chambre  has always been the place where one would hide one’s possessions, which could attract prospective robbers, who nicknamed a chambre cambriole ; which, for example, explains the word cambriolage  in French i.e. breaking and entering.

     On the other hand, between friends, one shares a chambre, hence the word camarade in French and comrade  in English, Kamerad  in German, camarad  in Spanish and Portuguese, camerata  in Italian; it’s always the same idea of “sleeping under the same roof”, (vaulted or not)! 


3.  Head


     Both words, French tête  and Italian testa,  are atypical and isolated: they originate in Latin testa, meaning an earthern vase. Testa has obviously retained the trace of a pleasant image, which we find today in many slang words in French, assimilating the head to a pot or a bottle: bouille, cafetière, carafon, fiole.


     To understand the other designations used for head, one needs to go back to Latin caput, a word originating in the Indo-European root *kap, which we find also in the Greek kephalê and the German Gipfel  (summit, top).






     Greek                                    Latin                                         Gothic

     kephalê                                 caput                                         haubit




French  Italian  Portuguese  Spanish                 English  German  Dutch  Danish

chef         capo        cabeça        cabeza                      head     Haupt    hoofd   hoved


     Thee Indo-European *k has evolved into a h in Germanic, hence the word head,  German Haupt, Dutch hooft, and Danish hoved. The Latin caput evolved into French chef  (in English chief)  and Italian capo, whereas a popular Iberic form, capitia, gave cabeça  in Portuguese and cabeza  in Spanish.


     The same head  or summit  is at the origin of the word chapter  (chapitre, capítulo, capitolo), as well as “capital” punishement: French décapiter,  Italian decapitare,  Sp. descabezar, Port. descabeçar), and a certain number of words designating different kinds of chiefs:  caudillo, caporal, capitán  and jefe  in Spanish, caporale  and capitano  in Italian, etc.

     Along the same paradigm, we have the verb precipitate : “to fall with the head forward” (Sp. precipitar,  It. precipitare).


     Finally, the same Indo-European root gave in Latin capitalis, capital. The word cattle  (in French cheptel)  first meant riches  or possessions, a proof that in a primitive rural society the maincapital  was the ownership of many heads of cattle.


4. (Evil) Eye, graft and  carnation


     The Indo-European root *ok, (eye) leads to Sanskrit aksi (eyes), to Greek osse (with another Greek form, ophthalmos, as well as the Latin oculus. However, the word oculus in Latin had also the meaning of bud, hence the word inoculare (to graft), Engl. inoculate, as in “to inoculate a patient against a disease”.


     The suffix -ox  is found in such words as atrox (atrocious), lit. “looking black”, and ferox (ferocious), lit. “with a fierce eye”. Féroce  and atroce  have their Romance cognates: feroce, atroce  in Italian, atroz  and feroz  in Spanish, atroz and fero  in Portuguese.


      Gothic augo, similarly to Greek ophthalmos, have not followed the normal development of the Indo-European form *ok.  Most likely the Gothic word augo has been volontarily modified in order to avoid to pronounce the word “eye”, for fear of the “evil eye”. Therefore, we have eye  in English, Auge  in German, oog  in Dutch, øje  in Danish. We have here a common phenomenon, which consists, in order to respect a taboo, to deform or to modify an appellation, because of the naïve belief that the word itself and the thing that it so named are one.


     The slit shape of the eye gave birth to an image, which is at the origin of the Spanish word ojal  and It. occhiello,  boutonnière or botton hole. We’ve seen that the verb “inoculate” at first meant “to graft”; we stay in the same field with the word “oeillet” (carnation), by definition “a little eye”, which at first designated the eyelets of a shoe, then the odorous flower, oeillet  in French, carnation  (because of its fleshy colors) in English, and clavel  in Spanish. Clavel  finds its origin in the word clavo, meaning both nail  and cloves , because of the powerful smell. In Italian, garofano  means both carnation and cloves.




     To those who would doubt that animals have a soul, etymology has a formal and formidable answer, since the two words, animal  and anima, soul, refer to the same Indo-European root, *ane-ani, breath, and more specifically vital breath. Are we in for some surprises?


1. Bee, Honey, and Flee


     Men have been gatherers before practicing agriculture, hunters before raising cattle. Therefore wild honey was one of the products men gathered in the wild ; only much later did they trap bees to produce honey in beehives.


     The Indo-European root *medhu (honey) became *mel in European languages; thus we have meli  in Greek, mel-mellis  in Latin, which gave

Fr. and Sp. miel, or It. miele. Curiously however, English (where miel  is honey,  from Anglo-Saxon hunig  (cf. German Honig,  Danish honning  and Dutch honig)  goes back to the *mel root to create the word mildew  -word for word “honeydew”, to name a disease in plants, especially vine and potato plants.


     The bee, for its part, is named quite differently according to languages. English bee, Dutch bij, and German Biene  remain faithful to Indo-European *bhei. Greek inovates by naming the bee melissa  “honey flee”, probably because the Greeks avoided to give the insect its real nam during the harvesting season for fear of bringing bad luck (another taboo). In Romance languages, the name came from Latin apicula, a diminutive of apis, which became abeja  in Spanish, abelha  in Port, abelha  in langue d’oc (southern France), hence the French abeille.  Old French had a form stemming from apis, which was ef  (pronounced é)  and had become too brief to remain as such, hence the borrowing from langue d’oc (also known as Old Provençal). Italian has retained the short form ape.


     If honey  is an old commodity that men and bears have been consuming for millenia, there is no Indo-European word for beehive, simply because the beehive had not been invented: men were satisfied to gather honey from bees in the wild.This explains why the forms are recent and varied: arnia  in Italian, colmena  in Spanish (Celtic origin? we don’t know), French ruche  (from rusca, of Gaulish origin, rusca  = bark). In English we have hive,  in Dutch huif (perhaps from Latin cupa, (cask, vat), German Bienenkorb,  lit.“bee basket”.

     What about beewax? The Greek kêros and Latin cera gave in Italian and Spanishcera  as well as cierge  (religious candle), Sp. cirio, It. cero,  Germ. Kerze.

     In summary we see that the semantic field of bee, honey, and wax  takes root at an early period in history and retains a certain unity: beekeeping (or apiculture < api  (bee)) is an ancient and generalized practice in Europe (Read Virgil).


     From the bee  to the fly,  there is but a flapping (flutter?) of wings. Again an Indo-European root *mu-/mus-, which we find with the same sense in Latin musca (“Puer, abige muscas”), gave the French mouche,  Sp. and Port. mosca, Germ, Mücke  (we’ll also see another form, Fliege). From the word mosca,  Spanish derived mosquito, which was kept in English, French say moustique,  German Moskito. The Italian form, moschetto,  designated at first the arrow shot from a crossbow, before designating the arm itself. Thus we have in Spanish the word mosquete,  French mousket,  and English musket.


     Here is how we can summarize the philological evolution of the musca (flee) turned into a musket.




                       Latin   musca


              French          Italian       Spanish

              mouche       mosca        mosca >       mosquito


                                                                            French     Italian


                                                                      moustique  moschetto          musket


     We haven’t dealt with the English fly  yet, nor the German Fliege. Both words stem from a German root, *fliek, with the sense of “flying” or “fleeing”. This explains the English verb to fly, German fliegen, but also in Romance languagesflecha  in Spanish, flèche  in French, freccia  in Italian, which we call an arrow,  but simply means “a thing that flies”. Thus the flee  has given its name to two weapons, which is quite a lot for a harmless insect!


2. The cuniculus or rabbit: another taboo word?


     A word as common as rabbit or lapin  in French (also a term of endearment: “mon petit lapin”) is just an etymological mystery in practically all European languages. In fact, there is no Indo-European root to name our fluffy bunny!

     In Latin we had, on the one hand, the word cuniculus  (Sp. conejo,  It. coniglio, Port. coelho,  Old French conin  and conil,  English cony   (as in Coney Island), German Kaninchen.  But we don’t know the origin of cuniculus. In Latin we had the word lepus, which gave the word lièvre (hare  in English), that’s all. The word cuniculus, it has been suggested, was borrowed from pre-Roman Iberic with a sense of underground gallery, den. In other words, the rabbit was defined as an animal living underground.


     Men (as opposed to women) being who they are, very early in historical philology, the French form conin  and conil  lended themselves to sexual jokes. You simply need to think of the proximity with the word cunnus  in Latin, which gave in French the word con ,(a taboo word, reduced nowadays to the meaning of jerk). Hence, in French, the word conin  was abandoned in exchange for the word lapin, the origin of which we know also nothing! It’s only in the XIVth century that appeared the words lapin  and lapereau  (young rabbit), which permits us guess the origin of a word *lap or *lappa for which some etymologists suggest the sense of flat stone with the same image of burrow, or hole in the ground, as in pro-Roman cuniculus.

     This French lapin  cannot be linked to the word lepus, which gave lièvre (hare  in English), Spanish liebre, Port. lebre,  It. lepre.  On the other hand, we find in Portuguese, despite the form coelho  (rabbit), a laparo  (French lapereau), which again could lead to an Iberic origin. The word lapereau  does not originate from lapin. We may surmise that the word laparo  could have arrived to Portugal via the seaways, linked, who knows, to the trade of pelts.


     In English, we’re faced with the same duality: rabbit  on the one hand and cony / coney  on the other. Cony <cuniculus  poses the same eymological problems as its corresponding Spanish or Italian. As for the word rabbit, perhaps it is connected to the Old Dutch word robbe  (rabbit), which still does not reveal its origin. We’re left with the word hare. In Romance languages, the word lièvre, Sp. liebre, Port. lebre, and It. lepre, all stem from the word lepus. As far as we can tell, hare  in English, haas  in Dutch, Hase  in German are connected to Sanskrit çaça  (çaç), meaning the jumper, without philologists however being able to reconstruct the Indo-European root.

     All this leads us to believe that there existed with rabbit and hare, a kind of semantic taboo and that, for obscure reasons, the rabbit in particular must have been considered a taboo animal.



3. Pig, Pork, Porpoise and Porcelain


     The domesticated pig seems to have played a major role as a source of meat for our ancestors. We’ve been able to reconstruct two roots, one purely European, *pork, and the other Indo-European, *su.


     From the above *su, we arrive at Latin sus, hence the Italian suino  (pig) and, via Gothic swein, with the same sense, to English swine,  German Schwein, Dutch zwijn, and Danish svin, as well as to the word designating the female:  sow  in English, Sau  in German, so  in Danish and zo  in Dutch. Curiously, the root sus, of Latin origin, seems to have developed essentially in Germanic languages.


     The root *pork, for its part, takes us to Latin porcus, the domesticated pig which gave the origin of porc  in French (we do not prononce the final c), Spanish puerco, Italian and Port. porco, but also their derivatives, such as pourceau  or porcelet  (piglet). No surprise in the naming of the English porcupine  (from Old French porc espin --porc d’espine), "a pork with quills”). Porcelain  is a different story! Again, the British borrowed it from the French, porcelaine, earlier pourcelaine  (sound “ou” in Old French), Sp. porcelana,  It. porcellana,  German Porzellan. The word originally designated a very shiny and large univalve shell (named cowrie  or cowry  in English) before qualifying, by analogy, a type of ceramic. The shape of this shell with its slit in the middle, because of its resemblance to the vulva of a sow, was given in Italian the name of porcellana, from the feminine porcella  (sow).


4. Fox and Foxy


     The fox gives us another example of taboo animals, with the rabbit, probably one of those malefic creatures considered to bring bad luck. Curiously, this animal bears its Indo-European name - from a root *puk meaning bushy - only in Germanic languages: fox in English, vos  in Dutch, Fuchs  in German. It has given also the verb fuchsen  in German (to trick, to vex). In English don’t we have the familiar verb to fox, to puzzle or to deceive as well as the adjective foxy?


     The Latin vulpes didn’t have much success in Romance languages; it has survived in Italianvolpe,  Romanian vulpe,  and in a few dialects. This vulpes  at first had given in Spanish vulpeja, which disappeared and was replaced by raposa, itself replaced by the actual zorra. Raposa  is generally considered as being linked to rabo, which means tail, the same way as the Germanic series of fox, Fuchs  is sometimes compared to the Sanskrit word pucchah, meaning tail. In summary, in both Spanish and Sanskrit, a fox  would mean “the tailed one”. 


     What is interesting in this example is the general tendency that consists in naming animals from their exterior appearance, the fox being first caracterized by its bushy tail (The same thing is true of the squirrel, < Greek skiouros, “shadow-tail”). Originally, the Spanish word zorro  probably meant lazy, and in modern Portuguese the same word for fox still means the animal on the one hand and “slow, drugging one’s feet” on the other.


     There was in Old French a word for fox, which was goupil, a diminutive of *vulpiculus. This term however as early as the XIII century was replaced by the name of a man, Renart  then Renard,  which had been given to the goupil  in many literary texts, the most famous of which is the Roman de Renart.


     In short, we see that in Romance languages, the fox, which was given the name of a person in France and meant lazy in Spain and Portugal, seems to have been the object of some kind of taboo. In Germanic languages on the other hand, the name retained is that of the “tailed one”.


5. Cats, Dogs and Wolves


     The name for cat  does not go back to an Indo-European-root, but probably to a Celtic one, *catt.  Some etymologists however think that the European name for cat  could originate in Africa, because in Arabic or in Berber, are foundwords with the same consonance kit, kaddiska.  Nothing indicates however that the borrowing could have taken place the other way around.

     At any rate, it’s rather late in history, around the Vth century, that the domesticated cat , with the corresponding Latin word cattus, makes its apparition. Latin, in fact, had only feles, (hence feline), which designated a wild cat. Therefore, it is from this Latin cattus that we derive chat  in French, gato  in Spanish, gatto  in Italian and gato  in Portuguese.

     The Germanic languages, for their part, had English cat,  German Katze, Danish and Dutch kat, which they either borrowed from the Romance languages, or took from the Celtic *catt just mentioned.


     A note on the French verb chatouiller  (to tickle) and the German verb kitzeln  (same sense). The origin of the French verb in unclear. It may have been borrowed either from the Dutch verb katelen  or it may stem back to the word cat itself: chatouiller  would then mean to scratch the way you stroke a cat or comparable to a cat’s fur. The German verb kitzeln  could suggest a reference to the word Katze. 

     Talking of “cat’s fur”. . . You probably won’t be surprised to learn that French chatte  (female cat), or the more familiar minet,  gatto  in Italian or pussy   in English, in addition to our furry friend, mean all the same thing . . .  Incidentally, the word puss  for cat (also puss-cat) finds its origin in Gaelic pus, of unknown origin.


     The word *kwon (for dog) on the other hand, appears very early at the side of man. Dogs were utilized by Indo-Europeans to guard their livestock and protect them against wolves in particular. This *kwon root is found again in Greek kuôn and Latin canis. It’s from the Greek term that we have learned words such as “cynocephalus” (dog-faced baboon), lit. a monkey with a dog’s face or “cynical”, lit. resembling a dog. Originally, the Cynics was the name given to philosophers who pretended to return to nature and refused social conventions.


     Latin, for its part, gvae chien,  cane  in Italian, cão  in Portuguese, and its derivatives, in particular chenil  and kennel. More interestingly, it produced also the word canaille  in French, canaglia  in Italian and canalla  in Spanish, which in English is translated by rabble or riffraff, both pejorative words as well.


     You may be interested to learn why in Romance languages we named the scorching heat of mid-summer canicule  in French, canicola  in Italian, and canicula  in Spanish. The word comes from Latin canicula, meaning little dog, which designated the Sirius star - named in French chien d’Orion -  and appeared with the hot sun going from July 22 to August 23, hence the name of the star for the burning summer heat. This “little bitch” of canicula  (canicula, lit. means little female dog), has also given the word chenille  (caterpillar), retained as chenille  in the textile industry, simply because our ancestors saw the larva of the caterpillar having a head resembling that of a little (female) dog!


     Spanish and Portuguese distinguish themselves by naming the dog perro  and the female dog perra.  In reality, medieval Spanish had another word, can, derived from Latin. Perro  was only used in a pejorative manner, without philologists being able to discover the origin of the word, perhaps the sound that shepherds made (“prrrrt”) to give orders to their watchdogs. Perro  prevailed over can  as well as its derivatives, such as perrera  for kennel  (Italian canile, French chenil),  perrengue  for an aggressive person compared to a fierce dog.  Portuguese, on the other hand, has both cão  and perro,  the former used more frequently than the latter.


     Finally, let’s return to *kwon. The corresponding Gothic form, written with h, led to German Hund, English hound  (hunting dog), and its derivatives, suchs as in German Hündin  (female dog), Hundelhütte  (kennel), and, as a calque  (a copy) on the word canicula, Hunstage,  (lit. dog days).

     What about English? The Saxon word dog  was borrowed by different languages to designate not a dog in general but a particular type of dog proper to England, the bulldog. The word has given French dogue  (bouledogue), German dogge,  Duch dog  and Danish dogge.


     The wolf, *wlkwo, designated an animal, which, with the bear, was at the center of Indo-Europeans’ preoccupations, for wolves attacked their flocks and killed their livestock. Their languages have preserved this root: lukos in Greek, lupus in Latin  (Fr. loup,  Sp. & Port. lobo,  it. lupo)  an wulfs in Gothic (Eng. wolf, Ger. Wolf).  The Latin lupa (she-wolf), designated also the prostitute, hence the word lupanar  in Romance languages to designate the brothel.


     The Latin lupus  gave also in French the expression “marche à la queue leu leu”,  meaning “walking in a single / Indian file”, where the Old French word leu  for loup  has survived.       


     When you pick up the phone and say “Hello”, an expression borrowed from the French “Allô”, you’re in fact “crying wolf”! “Allô”, so it seems, originates in the expression “au loup!  au loup!” “A wolf there!”.


     The wolf  was an important “feature” in European cultures. We find the name in many places  in France, for example Saint-Loup-sur-Thouet  in my native Deux-Sèvres or Saint-Leu.  In Paris itself, the famous Louvre  museum owes it name to a region infested with wolves.!.

6. Cows, Vaccine, Veal and Velum


     Although raised for many years all through Europe, bovidae  i.e. animals of the bovine family, have retained the most varied names. Let me mention first the French series of vache  (cow), veau  (calf), taureau  (bull), boeuf  (ox), which gave correspondingly in German, Kuh  (cow), Kalb  (calf), Stier  (steer), Ochs  (ox), and in Spanish vaca, ternero, toro, buey. We see that there are no connections between Romance and Germanic languages, and despite clear correspondences within the two groups, vache - vaca  in Romance or cow-Kuh in Germanic, one still finds divergences: ternero  in Spanish, veau  in French, or Stier  in German and bull  in English.


     Bull  and cow  in Indo-European come from the same term, *gwow, which gives, one the one hand, Greek bous  and Latin bos,  which naturally takes us to boeuf  in French, buey  in Spanish, bue  in Italian, and boi  in Portuguese, and, in the other Germanic languages *ku, which ends up as cow  in English, Kuh  in German, ko  in Danish, and koe  in Dutch. We see that the double semantism of Indo-European *gwow is divided between the Romance languages, where only the sense of boeuf, bue, bue, boi  for the ox was retained and the Germanic languages, where was kept the name of cow.


     Romance languages named the female of the bull from a Latin term, vacca (Fr. vache, Sp. vaca, It. vacca, Port. vaca), whereas Germanic languages, to name the male, used a root typically Germanic, Eng. ox, Dutch os, Danish okse, Ger. Ochs.


     This French vache,  or Italian vacca,  presented very early the problem of carrying a disease called in English cowpox, lit. “the smallpox of cows”, which is a translation from the Latin variola vaccina, translated in French by variole vaccine, later on abbreviated in justvaccine,  from which came the word vaccin  in French, vaccine  in English. It had been discovered by scientists that when human beings were inoculated with the virus of the “variola vaccina”,  they were protected from smallpox. Hence the word vaccine, by definition inoculation of cowpox, and, by extension, inoculation of other vaccines, as Pasteur’s famous vaccine against rabies.


     The male partner of the cow  is not an Indo-European word either. It goes back to the Greek tauros, Latin taurus, Sp, toro,  French taureau, whereas the English bull, Dutch bul, German Bulle , in addition to Stier, has an unclear etymology.


     The baby of the cow brings us back to an Indo-European root, *wet, which means year. Hence the Greek etos  (year), and the Latin vitellus)  >  It. vitello, (French veau), because the vitello  was born in the course of the year.


     As for the Germanic calf,  German Kalb, Dutch kalf,  Danish kalv,  it has an etymology difficult to reconstruct, perhaps linked to Sanskrit garbha, which means foetus. To support this hypothesis, we can mention the fact that the skin of still-born calves was utilized to make a very thin parchment, called velum (vélin  in French). Therefore it is not excluded that calf  comes from

a word meaning foetus.


     Here is a summary of this complicated evolution, where are kept only Indo-European data:


                         *gwow                                *wet


                       ox & cow                      (of the year)         Sansk. garbha


               Latin bos     Ger. *ku         Latin vitellus             “foetus”


                      boeuf           cow                     veau

                      buey            Kuh                    vitello                 Kalb

                       boi              koe                      velum                 calf


     Despite this diversity, we find some convergences in English and French (Anglo-Norman to be more exact) between calf  and veal. These borrowings from French are to be placed in a coherent series that go back to the social organization of England when it was dominated by an aristocracy speaking French in the XIIth, XIIIth and XIVth century.


     The origin of the  doublets, as you know, is to be found in the fact that during England’s Norman domination, “old Alderman ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet, while he is under the charge of serfs [...] but becomes Beef, a very French Gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume him. Mynheer Calf, too, becomes Monsieur de Veau in the like manner; he is Saxon when he requires tendance, and takes a Norman name when be becomes matter of enjoyment.” (More on this later)  From Ivanhoe,  where Walter Scott (1771-1832) gives us a colorful lesson of English vocabulary).




7. Horse, Cart and Career


     Archeological reconstructions have demonstrated that Indo-Europeans used both the horse *ekwo  and the cart. This root evolved toward Greek hippos and Latin equus. In Romance languages, however, the various names for horse do not originate in Latin. As for French cheval, Italian cavallo,  Spanish and Portuguese caballo, they hardy pose any etymological problems: they go back to Latin caballus, perhaps of Gaulish origin. This root is also at the origin of the whole vocabulary of chivalry, chevalier, caballero, cavaliere,  etc.


     Yet, “the noblest conquest of man” still has a few surprises in store for us.  The female of the horse, in Old French, was called ive, based on Latin equa. In Spanish we still say yegua  for a female horse. However it’s the Latin jumentum,  (work horse?), which took over, for example in French under the form jument.

The noble horse, for its part, continues “to make war”. It’s even doubly utilized: the valiant knights move about on a palfrey  but fight in combat on their steed.  This palfrey  or palefroi  owes its name to a compound noun, Greek and Gaulish, paraveredus, which gave birth to German Pferd  (horse). You’ve guessed that the English word palfrey  is just the English pronounciation of French palefroi.


     We still have to add the word destrier . This destrier,  for its part, was led

by an an écuyer,  (a young horseman) who, while holding the reins of his own horse with his left hand, held the reins of his master’s horse with this right hand, i.e. his dextera mano, hence the word destre  (right) and destrier, a now poetic term translated in English by steed  (< Old English steda, stallion).


     As for the wordhorse  itself (Dutch ros, German Ross , poetic form of Pferd),  we go back to Indo-European *kur, a root that is clearly at the origin of the Latin currere, and therefore French courir  (to run), Spanish correr  and corrida, Italian correre. This same root has also given the word courrier, which we call mail  in English as well as courier  when we mean the messenger rather than the message. It has also given the word corsair, which we call pirate  or corsair,  and literally means a roamer of oceans. French courrier  has its equivalent in Sp. corrreo, It. corriere. Corsaire  has the cognates corsario  in Spanish and corsaro  in Italian.


     In Germanic languages, *kur has evolved into a ros  form, which gave the word horse  in English (i.e. the runner), Ross  in German, and also the Old French rosse,  which means a bad horse; and probably the name of Don Quichotte’s horse, Rossinante.

     We’re not finished yet with *kur. In Gallic, it took the sense of cart  or carriage, and it was borrowed by Latin with the same sense (carrus) to produce in English car, chariot, cart, carry;  Karren, chargieren  in German, char, chariot, charrette, charger  in French. (See how French spelling is unconsistant: chariot  is spelled with one r  and charrette  with two!)


     Interestingly enough, the word caricature  (It. caricatura)  comes also from the same root by the intermediary of Latin verb caricare (to charge, to overload...

in order to prove your point).


     The most interesting avatar of *kur probably is the notion of career, in the sense of “professional progression”. Isn’t a career, which literally means a carriage-road, “a course of life or employment”?


8. Pink Flamingo and Spanish Flamenco


     Very often, semantic passages are eloquent witnesses of the manner certain peoples see other peoples. Here is another example: the way the Spaniards view the Flemish people and their rosy complexion

     The swarthy Spaniards (who occupied the Low Countries between 1519 and the middle of the XVIIth century) had been struck by the fair skin of their Flemish subjects. Plus the fact that the Flemish called themselves Flaming  was going to give its common name to the Phoenicoepterus  roseus, the pink flamingo, which is equally Flamingo  in German and flamant rose  in French, i.e. a Flemish.  Only the Italians changed the name in fenicottero. 

     For the Sapniards, this rosy skin-color of the Flemish people was then to be applied to women with fair skin. How did the word changed later on to mean  “provocative” (a simpler word probably would be sexy? I don’t know. Women different from your own kind are supposed to be “lighter”, n’est-ce pas? The fact is that the adjective flamenco  - flamenca  in the feminine form  - came to mean the idea one had of the Gypsies, Gitanas  in Sapnish. So, via another semantic passage, the term flamenco   ended by naming the Gypsy songs of Andalusia, the flamenco  (which in Spanish is an exact homonym of the flaming o bird).




1. From Salt to Salary


     The *sal root concerns only the Western branch of Indo-European languages. From that root have emerged Latin sal,  then French sel, Sp. and Port. sal, It. sale, Eng. salt, German Salz.  Salt has always been a vital commodity, therefore the Latin salarium  designated the money given to military men to purchase their salt, hence the word salary  ; by definition a soldier  is the one who is paid “in salt”,  or at least paid in cash to purchase his vital salt.

      The French term used to pay soldiers  incidentally is la solde, (a term we also use in accounting in its masculine form:le solde  to mean the balance of an account. This solde  does not originate in *sal  but in Latin solidus, which is the goden coin that we find in the word sou  in French, Spanish sueldo, It. and Port. soldo.  [The word shilling,  on the other hand, comes from Germanic skillingaz  [unattested]). Is there a “crossing” between the idea of salt  and Latin solidus?

We don’t know, but it’s possible.

     Salt, as we know, is essentially used in cooking. We find the same root in such words as sauce  (salsa  in Sp. or It., sauce  in French or in English), sausage (Sp. salchicha,  Port. salsicha,  It. salsiccia,  Fr. saucisse).


     Just as an aside, the great majority of slang words in French used as a synonym for money find their origins in food: fric (<fricot),  oseille  (sorrel), blé (wheat), avoine  (oat), galette, etc.


2. Beer and Bread


     The symbolic basis for food is bread  and wine, rather than bread  and beer. Except that wine is a Mediterranean creation, whereas beer is much more ancient, and that the making of beer appeared in very different parts of the globe: it already existed with the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Gauls, as well as in Africa where was made a beer with a grain called millet  (which we give to the birds!). One way or another, beer is made from the fermentation of an aqueous (water-based) extract of germinated cereals.


     In European languages we find three roots for the word beer.

     1. An Anglo-saxon root ealu, which is continued in Suedish öl  and in our English ale

     2. A Dutch root, bier, borrowed by the French in the XVth century, which gave bière,, beer  in English, Bier  in German, bjorr  in Islandic and birra  in Italian.

     3. A Gaulish root, cervesia, which has survived today in Spanish cerveza, Port. cerveja,  and in the Old French word cervoise.


     An additional note on the origin of the word beer.  The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology  (Oxford Paperbacks) I’m using says: Old English beor  = Middle Low German, Middle Dutch ber, Old High German bior  (Dutch, German bier), a West Germanic word. And here is the interesting (wrong) note: “perhaps from monastic Latin biber drink, adoption Latin bibere.

     This, just to signal that our etymological roots often leave room for interpretation. 

     We see then that, despite the rare counter examples (ale, cerveza),  it’s the West Germanic word that has won over.


     Forget the fanciful allusion about the drinking monks “imbibing” their celibate life in booze. More seriously, at the origin of beer, there is an Indo-European root, *bher, expressing the idea of bubbling,  which via Latin fervere (>fever),  to boil, gave in French the word ferment, It. fermento, and via Germanic gave in Italian brodo,  English broth,  the verb to brew, and, importantly, “our daily bread”. Similarly in German we have brot  (bread),

Brühe  (broth), and brauen  (to brew, when talking about beer).


     Therefore beer  is closely related to bread  and German Brot.  The German word Bärme  (yeast) marks perfectly the semantic link beween these two products, which have in common their processus of fabrication based on the idea of fermentation.






   Sanskrit                  Greek                     Latin                                   Gothic         

     bh                             ph                         f                                               b


     If bread  goes back to the idea of fermentation in Germanic Languages, it is rather based on the idea of food in Romance languages. An Indo-European root, *pa, *pas, *pat (to feed), gave in Latin the verb pascere with the same sense, from which we have the word pastor (he who feeds the flock). It also gave in Latin the word panis, which gave in French “Au bon pain ”, Sp pan, It. pane, Port. pão.

     Combine the preposition cum (with) with panis, and you have “the one with whom you share your bread”, that’ your companion. Thus we have in French compagnon  and copain, Sp. compañero , compagno   in Italian, andKompan  in German.

     From companion  to company,  the passage is easy. This derivation is found in several European languages: accompany, Sp. accompañar, It. accompagnare.

In the same series, we have words such as Fr. panier, It. paniere  (bread carriers = baskets). The Sp. panera  means both basket  and granary. If the French word boulanger  (baker) goes back to Latin bulla, thus designating the maker and seller of “boules de pain” (Sp.: panaderor,  It.: panettiere),  all from the same root.


     The German Bäcker  and English baker  go back to a root indicating heat and cooking: *bhogo, which via Greek phôgô (to roast) and Latin focus (Fr. feu,  Sp. fuego, It. fuoco), take us to other words such as foyer  (hearth, fire place) as well as fusil  (rifle). (The word fire, for its part, has an Old Saxon origin: fiur, Old High German fuir,  Ger. feuer)


     A close parent of baker  or Bäcker  is the word bath  (Ger. Bad,  city of Baden-Baden) by means of what is implied in the root *bhogo. It has nothing to do with the Roman bath,  which originates in Latin balneum  and gave in French balnéaire as in “station balnéaire”, which is translated as seaside resort.


3. Fodder, Feed and Fur


     The *pa root, from which we derived the idea of food seems to be linked to another Indo-European root, that of *poi, to guard or to protect. If we follow these two semantic directions, we have a series of words denoting protection on the one hand, Fr. fourreau  (sheath), fourrure  (fur), and what needs to be protected on the other: our food, and for animals: fodder  or forage  (< Fr. fourrage).  Here is how we can schematically represent the semantic evolution:



to guard, to protect


Latin                                      Gothic                           Gothic

pascere                                   fodjan                             fodr

                                                (to feed)



pasture                       fodder                   food          fourreau          fur                             

pastor                                                                           (sheath)



     Let’s begin with terms indications protection. Gothic fodr is at the origin of the French words fourreau  (sheath), which protects the blade of your sword,

It. fodero,  Sp. forro  (which means lining) and fourrure  (which protects your body). In English we have fur, furrier, Ger. Futter  (case), and füttern  (to stuff and to feed animals?).

     Halfway between the idea of protection and that of food, we have, from Latin pascere, all the words that suggest the notion of pasture  andwatching over, which we find in the Fr. word pâtre  (shepherd) or the English word pastor, Sp. pastor, It. pastore, Fr. pasteur  (= Protestant minister by opposition to the priest  <presbuteros  i.e. the old and respectable one).


     From the French verb repaître, a literary term we could translate as to feast and, more basically to feed  asto feed one’s mind on books, we arrive at the word repas, English repast, a word based on Old French repast  (adoption of Latin pastus, fodder, food.)


     It’s the Gothic fodjan to feed, which is going to generate the vocabulary for food  with two variants, one corresponding to animal food: foder  (forage)

[Fr. fourrage,  It. foraggio, Sp. forraje]  and the other human nourishment:

the English word food.


4. All by itself: Wine


     Wine is a purely Mediterranean creation. Greek oinos and Latin vinum are words originating from the same root, reconstructed under the form *wein, which does not go back to Indo-European, but rather to a non-identified Mediterranean language. The reason is simple: Indo-Europeans didn’t know wine, no more than they knew olive oil or cultivated fig trees. . .


     Modern Greek has replaced oinos (which we find in learned words such as oenologist) by krasi (the first meaning of which is mixture). Latin vinum is transmitted to the various Romance languages (Sp. & It vino,  Port. vinho,  

Fr. vin)  and Germanic languages (Ger. Wein, Eng. wine). The vinum paradigm unfolds without problems in Romance languages and, part of it, was borrowed by Germanic languages.


     Here is how it can be summarized:


French           Spanish         Italian            Port                English          German

vin                 vino               vino               vinho            wine               Wein

vignea           viña               vigna             vinha             vineyard      

vignoble        viñedo           vigneto          vinhedo             -                  Winberg

vendange      vendimia      vendemmia vindima        vintage          Weinlese

vinaigre        vinagre          (aceto)                                    vinegar          Weinessig


     One last note: “Le vin réjouit le coeur de l’homme” (Wine rejoices man’s heart). Yet the semantic derivatives have nothing of a rejoicing nature: vineyard, vintage, vinegar. The French word ivrogne  (drunkard) or ivresse  (drunkenness) originates in an another source, Latin ebrius > ivre  (drunk), which is incidentally at the origin of the word sober, from Latin se-ebrius.

By definition, sober  (sobre) means “sans-drink”.


5. “Fruits of the sea”


     What we call in English seafood or more poetically in French or in Italian fruits de mer   or frutti di mare  were not known by Indo-Europeans, more accustomed to steppes than shores. True, the word for fish  has a distinct Indo-European root, *pisk, which leads, as it is expected, to forms in -f- in Germanic languages: fish,  Ger. Fisch, Dan. fisk)  and in -p- in Romance tongues: Fr. poisson, It. pesce, Sp. pez). But this type of fish was only freshwater fish.


     When it comes to fish from the sea, the names are hardly unified. For example, the Italians name pescecane  (poisson-chien = fish-dog), what the French call requin,  English shark,  Spaniards tiburón, Portuguese tubarão, and Germans Hai;  all this not without posing some etymological problems.


     Just a few indications in three directions.

     1. Sp. & Port. tiburón / tubarão. It has been suggested that the word has its origin in the Tupi language of the Indians, uperu, borrowed by the Portuguese (at the times of Brazilian colonization) with the normal agglutination of the t, which in Tupi represents the article: tuperu  = the shark; --  Hyundai, probably playing on shark/sharp appeal, has just named one of its cars Tiburón. You see, it helps to know some Spanish!


     2. English shark  may find its etymology, somewhat like the verb to search, in an old verb, to shark  meaning “to roam in search of a prey”, which itself originates in the Old French verb cherquier   to search ;

     3. The French word requin  is just an etymological mystery. One (wrong) hypothesis is that the word comes from Church Latin requiem.  \He who is attacked by a requin  is bound to end up in the beast’s belly with only requiem  mass said to for put his soul to rest! Others have suggested that the requin  was so named because of its teeth, from the Old Norman verb rechigne:   to show one’s teeth, and its corresponding adjective rechin, which means grumpy.  Others have suggested quin, a form of chien . Conclusion: Nobody seems to know. . .


     The Indo-Europeans didn’t know either what were crustaceans,  so named because they are protected by a crust  (from Latin crusta  -  the same word that gave us  “French custard”  < from same crusta > to Frenc croûte) . Therefore, it’s uniquely a Latin root that gave, via Greek Kammaros and Latin cammarus, crustaceans  such as  Sp. camarón  (shrimp), It. gambero  (crayfish), French homard  (lobster) and German Hummer.


     The French langouste,  (which my Collins-Robert French-English Dictionary translates as both crawfish  and crayfish),  for its part, goes back to a European root in which we find the idea of jumping, hence the Latin locusta, English locust,  Sp. langosta,  It. locusta  (grasshopper) and aragosta  (crawfish), and finally English lobster,  (Old English loppestre, lopystre, lopustre,  adoption of Latin locusta crustacean, locust,  with unexplained “p” for “c”,  etc...)


     Another European root, *gerbh (to scratch), which is at the origin of the Greek verb graphô, (to write), presides over two parallel series naming one a freshwater crustacean  and an ocean crustacean.  On the freshwater side, *gherb gave us High German Krebithz,  which took us to Old French crevisse  (hence, modern Fr. écrevisse  (crayfish), and to German Krebs  (same sense). Spanish cangrejo  and Italian granchio, for their part, go back to Latin cancer ; on the sea side, *gherb takes us to a series that is mainly productive in Germanic languages (Dan. krabbem, Dutch krab, Ger. Krabbe, and, of course, Eng. crab, from which the French (for a change) borrowed the word crabe.


     Crayfish  and crab  (crawfish), which are quite distinct for gourmets, are much less so for languages and dictionaries. Thus, crab  in Spanish is called cangrejo de mar,  i.e. crayfish of the sea, the same as in Italian we have ranchio di mare. And supreme confusion, English extends this “oecumenism” further, since - as printed in my Collins-Robert Dictionary  - crayfish  or crawfish  mean both the freshwater and the sea water crustacean.  However, no French gourmet is going to confuse écrevisse  and langouste  or langoustine!...


     To complete our fruits de mer  extravaganza, we need to add to our plate oysters  and mussels. The French huître  (for oyster) goes back to Greek ostreon, via Latin ostrea, which ends up in Spanish as ostra , It. ostrica,  Ger. Auster  and Eng. oyster.


     Just a note about the bizarre French spelling. There should be no h in huître, it should be written “uitre”. But, at at time when -u- and -v-  were written exactly in the same manner, how can you distinguish “uitre”  and “vitre”  (window) pane of glass? The h was added to prevent confusion. As for the moule,  or mussel, its origin goes back to Latin musculus, which gave German Muschel,

Sp. mejillón  and Por. mexilhão.


6. Life, Soul (Anima) & Animal


     The Indo-European root *gwey  (life, alive), it as the origin of two Greek verbal forms with the meaning of alive, one with an initial b- (bios,  (life) sumbiôsis  (to live together) and the other with a z- (zôon,  alive, and zoê,  life), which leads a philologist to conclude that, despite appearances, zoology  and biology are, etymologically speaking, the same science.




Sanskrit                                 Greek                                     Latin                    Gothic

jivah  jiv                               zoos bios                               vivere                        quius

alive, life                               alive  life                              vivre                         quick



                                     zoology      biology                         vivacity                     quick



     The Latin verb vivere, naturally, is going to produce in Romance languages, vivre, vie, vif  (quick) in French and, more unexpectedly, viande  (victuals) from Latin vivenda  (“things that keep you alive”), a term that at first designated all that people eat, all kinds of foods, before taking the specialized meaning of flesh.

     From the Greek originate many learned forms, such as amphibious, lit. “living a double life”, microbe  i.e. “mini life”, zodiac  “animal constellations” (zodiakos [kuklos] = (*circle of carved figures), or azo- az- in chemistry, from French azote  (from a - [not] + zoê,  life, i.e. “lifeless” [unlike the life-sustaining oxygen].

     All these forms, or almost all, are found in all the Romance languages: for example: vie, vida, vita ; vivre, vivir, vivere, Port. viver,  with however some interesting semantic variants. For example, in Spanish, vivienda  means “the place where one lives”, “abode”, whereas in Italian, vivanda  designates “food”. In general, however, the *gwey root gave Romance languages forms designating life, the living (men and beasts), physical nourishment (which allows one to stay alive), and the concept of vivacity (proof of life). Conversely, this track is less productive on the Germanic side, where the Gothic quius is hardly found except in our English quick,  and in the compound German word Quecksilber (unpredictable, mercurial).


     To conclude, let’s point out that the encounter between the animal world and life in general, between zoology and biology, which we find in all Romance languages, is not surprising and is “written” or expressed in the words thelmselves:


                  French           Spanish         Italian            Porguguese

                        âme                alma               anima            alma  (soul)

                        anima            animal           animale         animal


     At the origin of this conjunction or union, we find the Latin anima,  breath, based on the Greek anemos, wind, which itself goes back to Indo-European *ani, breath, that is to say the “breath of life” that animal shares with man.




1. Shiny Silver or Money and Brilliant Clay


     It’s an Indo-European root, *arg- (to shine), which is going to be, in this example, the point of departure: a root that Greek argos (shiny) prolongs naturally. But, if, as we know, “everything that shine is not gold,” it’s precisely because gold is not the sole shiny metal: silver  shines too, and therefore took in Greek the name arguros. This metal (Latin argentum >  Fr. argent, It. argento)  is then going to represent money. But the idea of brilliance applies also to the brilliance of the spoken word: thus, from the same arguros we have the word argument, Fr. argument, It. argue, Sp. argumento  or the verb to argue. Hence we go from the concrete (metal and money) to the abstract (mind).


     The passage from silver metal  to silver money  tookplace as well is Spanish, where the word plata  (silver) first referred to money before being replaced with the same sense by dinero  (although in South America the word plata  for money  is still used.) This dinero, as well as the Portuguese dinherio, goes back to the Latin denarius, which itself originates in an Indo-European root *dek’m (ten). The Latin denarius was in fact a silver coin, which was worth ten as  (the ace of our card games was in Latin a unit used both for money and a weight measure. We find this compound meaning in the French denier, but also in the word denrée  (foodstuff); a denrée  is the quantity of food you can purchase with one denier, which is an image that is frequent in slang, as we’ve seen earlier: blé (wheat) in French or dough  in English.





Greek   argos                                                                               argilos





                                                argument                              (silver)  metal


                                                                                                (silver)  money


     The racine *dek’m is also at the root of all the manners of saying ten  in Indo-European languages (diez, dieci, ten, zhen), as well as ways of saying eleven, twelve  and therefore of saying Dec-ember  (the tenth month in the Roman year). The least unexpected heir of *dek’m is perhaps the word dean, Ger. Dekan. It. and Sp. decano, Port. deão, French doyen, which comes from Latin decanus,  “commanding ten men”.

     One last word on the *arg  root, which means to shine  and is used to designate silver  (metal), argument,  and money.  The Greeks used a word coming from the same root, argilos (white clay) to name a white earth, shiny as money. Hence, the Romance languages (Sp. arcilla,  It. argilla,  Port. argila,  Fr. argile)  are closely related when it comes to lump together earth, mind and money.


2. Water and Fire


     At the origin of the naming of water in European languages, two roots are found, one uniquely European, *akw and the other, Indo-Europen, *wed, which both reappear in Latin, where the Romans had two views of the water: one as element, aqua and the other as movement, unda.

     The form aqua evolved normally toward ewe  in Old French, then eau,  or agua  in Spanish and Portuguese, acqua  in Italian, and, of course, toward all the derivatives of aqua  in English as well: such as aqueous  (watery), aquatic, aqueduct  (acquae-ductus:  a water conduit) or words like aquarelle:  a drawing done in transparent water colors, an English word borrowed from French aquarelle, It. acquarella, Port. aquarela. The word gouache, (a method of painting using opaque water colors mixed with a preparation of gum), originates as well in aqua,  via Italian guazzo  (puddle)


                             idea of fire                                             idea of water


                  *peuor           *bhogo                       *akw                      *wed


Romance  Germanic    Romance  Germanic                       Romance  Germanic

bure           fire               feu                 bath                                    onde             water

bureau       feuer           foyer             bake          eau                    undulate      Wasser

                                                                             gouache                                      winter


     The posterity of Latin unda is as numerous as aqua: onde  (Sp. and It. onda),  but also, since unda  carried the idea of water in motion, of such verbs as Fr. ondoyer  (to undulate, to ripple), Sp. ondear,  it. ondeggiare), onduler  (to undulate, to ripple, to wave), Sp. undular, It. ondulare.  hese derivations are almost visual, based on the image of the water surface that, under the breeze, undulates.

     Connections between the verb inonder  (to flood) Sp. inundar, It. inondare,

and the Latin root unda are visible in the words themselves: in-undar, Engl. in-undate. It may not be as clear in the case of the verb to abound  (Fr. abonder), from Latin ab-undare,  where we easily see the root unda, which meant to flow, hence the idea of aboundance.

     The same Indo-European root *wed has evolved toward Germanic forms that have kept the initial -w- : wato in Gothic, water  and wet  in English, as well as Winter  (wet season), Wasser  in German, vand  in Danish and water  in Dutch.

     On the fire side, again we find the same type of duality, two European roots expressing, one the idea of fire, *peuor, and the other the idea of heat, *bhogo. Via the Latin focus, *bhogo gave the names for fire  in Romance languages: feu, fuego, It. fuoco, Port. fogo,  and the names for bath  in English, Ger., Dan. and Dutch Bad), as well as the notion of cooking in a oven in the Germanic languages: Eng. bake,  Ger. backen,  Dan. bage,  Dutch bakken.

     The root *peuor is, for its part, at the origin of the Greek form pur, (fire), that we find, for example, in the compound pyromaniac  (arsonist), and the Latin burrus, (brown), hence in French the word bure  (It. burello),  which means a coarse woolen stuff of brownish  color (i.e. the color produced by fire) used to cover writing desks, and gave the word bureau, originally the name of the cloth that was placed on a table to write on it. The meaning of the word then has evolved from desk  to the room  itself: un / le bureau = office. In English the word has evolved to mean also a government department.

     The Indo-European root evolved also toward a Gothic form, fon, and the names for fire in Germanic languages: fire,  Ger. Feuer,  Dan. fyr,  Dutch vuur.


3. Rain and Fleet


     The Indo-European root expressing the idea of “moving water” is *pleu, which we find in Greek in the form plein, (to navigate), hence the Greek verb periplous, “to navigate around”, which gave the French périple  (from peri around), Eng. (sea) voyage  or (land) journey.


     In Latin, the root gave pluere (to rain) and pluvia,  Fr. pluie, It. pioggia, Sp. lluvia, and in Old Scandinavian the root flod, which gave fleet  in English. This Germanic form is the one that became the most fertile for European languages: for example, flotte, flotter  (to float); in English flow, flood, flush, fleet;  in Ger. Flut , Fluss  (river), Floss  (raft), fliessen  (to run, to flow), etc.


     Finally, there is an interesting connection or metaphoric encounter between “liquid” and “money” as “flow of money” in English and its French equivalent: flux monétaire. The French verb renflouer, which, etymologically means to “refloat”, is used also in the sense of “aiding financially”, which is called in English “bailing out”.


4. Down to Earth and With Your Feet on the Ground


     An uncertain, yet attractive, etymology has the word terre (earth) originate in the Indo-European *ters  expressing the idea of “drying out”; the earth would be, then, by opposition to water, “what is dry”.  A “torrent” (from torrens,  the present participle of Latin torrere, to dry, to burn) would be an “etymological brother” of earth, as well as the word toast, thirst  (Ger. Durst). However, it’s more prudent to stay with the Latin etymology and the word terra, which gave  Fr. terre, Sp. tierra, It. and Port. terra. This etymology provides us with words such as territory  and terrain,  but also terrace  and the Mediterranean  Sea, by definition “in the middle of the terrain.


     On the Germanic side, we find a coherent series: English earth , Dutch aarde, Ger. Erde, Dan. jord :  a series that did not originate in Indo-European any more than in Romance languages, and probably came from Greek era (earth). It’s rather limited when we consider the earth to be the basis of our world. We may have, as the expression goes, “our feet on the ground”, and yet we don’t know where the words designating our “common grounds” come from!


     Ground  is translated in Romance languages assol  in French, Sp. suelo, It suolo;  a word that seems to go back to a European root meaning “the sole of the foot”. Hence, Eng. sole,  Ger. Sohle. The proximity of the foot and the shoe made it that this same root gave us the name for sole  (sole  in Old French, semelle  in Modern), suela  in Spanih,suolo  in Italian) for the shoe and the word for ground: sol, suelo, suolo... In every language, we need to keep our feet on the ground.


5. Air and Wind


     Both air and wind come from an Indo-European root, *we  or *wen, which mean to wind, to blow, and is expressed in Greek under the form aêr and in Latin under the form ventus. As we can see on the chart, in Romance languages air  and wind  have the same root, whereas in Germanic languages wind  and wheather  go back to *wen, which is a caracteristic of Northern (and windy) climates and people whose work is often associated with the ocean.

     We’ll note some interesting isolated words, such as the word éventail  (It. ventaglio)  for fan  (instrument or range in a figurative sense) or Spanish ventana, which means window:  “the eye of the wind”, a word that came from Old Norse vindauga, vindr, wind,  air + auga  eye


*we- *wen


Sanskrit                  Greek                                        Latin                          Gothic

vayuh                       aêr                                              aer                           winds

“vent”                    “air”                                          “air”                          “wind”


                                 asthma                                     ventus      

                              “short breath”                            “vent”


                                    Fr.    Sp.     It.   Port.   Eng.          Eng.   Ger.    Dan.  Dutch   

                                 air    aire   aria  aria     air            wind Wind vind   wind

                                vent viento vento vento       weather Wetter vejr weder


     You’ve noticed perhaps that what is called a tune or a melody in English is named aria  in Italian, Spanish or Portuguese, or air  in French, probably because the melody of any song, by definition, must be as light  and “airy” as the air we breathe.

     We may want to end this chapter with the word malaria, the “bad air”, which is the Italian name for paludism, also named malaria  in English.





I. Shared Love


     To express the way we designate love, European languages share two roots: the Indo-European *leubh, to take pleasure, and a Latin root amare. Although Latin has borrowed the Indo-European *leubh, which we find in the word libido  (desire, lust) and its derivativeslibidinous, libidineux, Sp. libídine, It. libidine,  it’s mostly the Germanic languages that prolong this root: to love  and to believe  in English; Liebe  and glauben  in German, gelooven  in Dutch...


     As for the Latin amare, we find it in amour, aimer, ami, amitié  in French and their corresponding forms in other Romance languages: Sp. amor, amar, amigo, amistad ;  Port. amor, amar, amigo, amizade ;  It. amore, amar, amico, amista,  etc...


2. Hatred, Sauerkraut and Sorrel


     Hatred, they say, is an ugly thing. This can be explained however if one considers the Indo-European root of the word, *kad, which meant both sadness and hate.  Hate thus would be the result of the sorrow that somebody or something has inflicted on you, which does not justify it, but allows to understand the way you feel... Words that designate hate  in the various European languages have very similar forms: English hate,  Ger. Hass,

Dutch haat, Danish had, Fr. haine,  Sp., It. and Port. odio.  In short, hate

seems to be a pretty common feeling!


     On the other hand, this same root *kad  is perhaps related to another form, *ak, with the sense of sharp  or tart, acidic,  a form that has inherited a more diversified lineage. The Latin form acidus has evolved toward words such as acid:  Fr. acide,  Sp. ácido,  It. acido), acier, acero, acciaio  (steel) and aiguille, aguja, ago  (needle) in Romance languages; but also the word oseille  in French (sorrel), acedera  in Sp., acetosa  in Italian. The English sorrel  is related to sour  (Danish sur, Dutch zuur,  French sur)  and, of course, German sauer, hence Sauerkraut,  literally “bitter, sour grass”.

     Even if the connection between these two roots, *ak and *kad, is somewhat uncertain, at least it has the advantage of showing that hate does not inhibit your appetite!

     More seriously, the root *ak, under its Greek form akros, acute  and akra, top or summit, is at the origin of the word acropolis, the top of the city, as well as the word acrobat, “he who walks on the tip of his toes”. We find the same root in the name of the “thorny plant” named acanthus.


3. Pity and Piety


     It’s a Latin adjective, pius, of uncertain origin but probably Italic (i.e. pertaining to ancient Italy or its peoples), which is at the origin of the words pity and piety.  These two words, besides their close resemblance, have a rather strong semantic link. The original sense of pius  was “who respects his parents and the gods”; the latin pietas therefore designated the fact of honoring the gods or one’s parents, and this term is going to coexist with the form pity  (French pitié,  based on the acccusative form of pietatem < pietas). Pity  is a kind of formal doublet of piety  without any real difference between them.


     When two forms coexist with the same sense, two things can happen: either one of them disappears or they take a different sense. This is what happened: religious piety,  or devotion, came to mean goodness and compassion at the same time, i.e. pity;  then both words branched out to take on a specialized sense.

     It’s interesting to note that, outside of French and English, which borrowed the two words (pity and piety) from Old French, the other Romance languages don’t have this distinction between compassion and devotion.


      French                 English          Spanish         Italian            Portuguese

      pitié                      pity                 piedad            pietà               piedade

      piété                     piety               piedad            pietà               piedade



4. Anger


     There existed in Indo-European a root, *ghel, which meant both shiny   and green  or yellow  (i.e. the color of young leaves on trees). It’s going to produce two words in Greek: bile, kholê, and green, khlôros. In Latin, the root takes the form fel, which ended up with the word fel  in Portuguese, fiel  in French, hiel  in Spanish, and fiele  in Italian.

     On the side of Germanic languages, *ghel has retained all its original senses,  but under different forms. Thus we have gall  in English, yellow  (and its derivative yolk), and gold.  The four (gall, yellow, yolk  and gold)  go back to the same root, and the same derivatives are found in almost all Germanic languages.


                  English          German         Danish           Dutch

                        gall                 Galle              galde              gal

                        gold                Gold               guld                goud

                        yellow            gelb                                         geel


         Let’s go back to kholê, bile. It gave its name very early to a disease, the  cholera, originally perceived as a malady of the bile; the same is true of the word melancholy  (gloom), lit. “black bile”. We still say in familiar French, “se faire de la bile”,  to mean “to get worried about something”. However, when the word cholera  passed from Greek to Latin, it broadened its sense and replaced the Latin ira (anger), probably because irascible, irritable  people were considered as being affected by their bilious  system. Thus the Old French word ire  (ire  in English) disappeared and was replaced by colère.


     As form the English (and Danish) term anger,  it goes back to Indo-European *angh, tight, hence the word anguish;  Ger. Angst, Fr. angoisse, It. angoscia,  Sp. angustia. It also gave the word angina, (Fr. angine,   It., Port., Sp. angina). The link between the idea of “tightening”  is metaphorical when we talk about anguish; it’s more physical -- and serious in the case angina pectoris.. But in both cases, although for different reasons, the image is clear, that of a tightening of the chest, which creates a moral or physical malaise.


5. Zeal and Jealousy


     The Greek zêlos, which meant both jalousy  and emulation (effort or ambition to equal or surpass another), probably because the first produces the second, is at the origin, at least in Romance languages, of a series of doublets designating zeal  and jealousy.


      English    French           Italian            Spanish         Portuguese

      zeal           zèle                 zelo                celo                 zelo

      jealous     jaloux            geloso            celoso             zeloso


     From zeal  to zealous  or zealot,  the passage is simple; and similarly jealous leads to jealousy  or jealousness. The etymology of the Greek root however is obscure. Some see it in the word Zealot, a member of a Jewish sect that resisted Roman rule in Palestine during the first century A.D. Nothing is so sure... What is certain is that jealousy  and zeal  are closely related in terms of the history of the language.

     The word jalousie  means something else in French (in addition to jealousy):

a venetian blind or jalousie  in English as well... Why is it so named? Because it permits you to watch, through the interstices or slits in the blind, the person(s) of whom you’re jealous!


6. Negation and Negotiation


     We don’t know what was the first word uttered by man. One thing is sure, however, whether it’s na in Sanskrit, no   in many languages, nein  in German, niet  in Russian, this negative chorus goes back to a common *ne root (with another form, *in that we find in Greek). Whereas the affirmative sign can be expressed as yes, ja, oui  or si, the negation is practically invariant in all European languages. This does not mean, however, that the negation is always “visible” in the words that we use.  Surely, we see it in the verb to negate  (Sp. and Port. negar, It. negare,  Fr. nier)  or to deny  (Fr. dénier,  Port. denegar).  But, who sees the negation in a word such as néant  (nothingness) or fainéant  (lazy, idle)? Forms such as none  in English, niemand  in German, ninguno  in Spanish, niuno  in Italian, clearly go back to the same negative nasal; the same is true of the word renegade  (turn coat), Fr. renégat,  Sp. and Port. renegado, It. rinegato.

     More surprising perhaps is the story of the word négoce  (trade, business, commerce) or the verb negogiate. The word is composed of two Latin roots, neg and otium (leasure, rest); the négociant  (merchant), Sp. and Port. negociante,

It. negoziante, by definition is the one who has no leisure time.  This doesn’t mean that one must feel sorry for him: his work is usually profitable...


     Remains the other form of the Indo-European root, *in, which turns up as a-  in Greek (and in-  all learned forms from Greek, as in atheist),  and un-  in Germanic languages, as fair / unfair,  German unlieb,  and as i-  in Latin,illisible (lisible = readable, unreadable).


     To conclude, let’s mention the amusing story of the enemy, a word that goes back to Latin inimicus, formed by the negation in-  and a derivative of the verb amare, which is opposed, of course, to amicus (friend). An enemy,  by definition, is the opposite of your friend, someone you hardly like!




     The words society, sect, association, or example, all go back to a same root, *sekw, meaning to follow, which does not convey a very positive idea of social life: you’re not able to live originally, says the etymology, you live only by following other people’s behavior.


1. College and Law


     The word law  is not an Indo-European notion in the lexicon; it goes back to several roots: to Latin lex-legis in Romance languages, which gave loi  in French, ley  in Spanish, lei  in Portuguese, legge  in Italian, and its derivatives, legitimate, loyal, legal, legislature.  On the Germanic side, things are more varied. The word law  in English (Danish lov)  goes back to Indo-European *legh, to lie down, which gave, in the other Germanic languages: liegen  in German, ligge  in Danish and liggen  in Dutch: the law is then “what is laid down on paper”, “what is fixed”. The same idea is found in German:Gesetz, law; however, the root is different, since it goes back to *sed (to be seated), which gave setzen  (to place): the law is what is placed or put there, like the pile legal texts that are placed on the desk of a judge or a lawyer...

     This law, that nobody is supposed to ignore, worms its way into every nook and cranny of our lives: in privileges first of all, since the Latin word privilegium designated a law edicted in favor of a specific individual, a kind of private law. The verb léguer  in French (to bequeath), which gave legacy  in English, comes directly from legare,  “send in ambassy”, then to yield, give posthumously, hence the word delegate,  a person authorized to act as a representative for another or others.

     The colleague  (Latin collega, Sp. and Port, colega, It. collega, Fr. collègue)  is the one who has received the same power; and when several colleagues are gathered, they constitute acollegium, (Fr. collège, It. collegio, Sp. and Port. colegio, that is to say a group of persons governed by the same law.


2. Livestock and Wealth


      (cattle)  (possessions)


      Latin                                                                                Gothic

      pecus       (herd)                                                         failhu   (herd)

      pecunia  (wealth)

                                                                                          English         French

                                                                                           fee                   fief                  

  pecuniary       to pick                                                                                                        


     The first element of wealth, because it was the first money of exchange, was livestock, to which Indo-Europeans gave the generic term of *peku, linked to *pek, fur. It designated at first animals providing men with wool, such as sheep, before taking on a more general sense. The term *pek  is at the origin of the Latin pectus, chest, a part of the body (on men) that is often covered with hair.


     The same root is found in Latin under the form pecu, cattle  and pecus, herd, where it gave the derivative pecunia, first with the sense of wealth  with the number of cattle owned, and then just wealth  in a general sense. Equally, in Gothic, faihu continues *peku, and conveys for the same reasons the sense of money   and material wealth.


     We have then with pecunia and faihu the basis of a semantic field, which in both Romance and Germanic languages assimilates wealth  to the possession of cattle or herd. Thus English fee, Danish foe  (salary, fee, next to får, sheep), German Vieh, cattle, French pécuniaire (hence English pecuniary,  consisting of or pertaining to money, syn. financial), Sp. pecora  (meaning an animal with wool), closely related to the word pecunia  (money), or It. pecoro  (sheep) and pecora  (ewe), all come from from the same root and the ssimilation established by our Euro-ancestors between cattle  and money.


     There remains another form of wealth, the one that is conferred by a lord when he gives an estate to his vassal, called a fief  in both French and English. The vocabulary of feudality  in Romance languages is often of Germanic origin, and words such as feudo  in Italian, féodal  in French, feudal  in Spanish, as well as English and German, are all derived from the Gothic faihu and the wealth that originates from the ownership of animals.


3. There is no fun in work!


     In Romance languages, work is not only tiresome, it’s literally torture. The notion of work is expressed by two Indo-European roots, *werg  and op. The first one, via the Greek ergon, brings us to English work  and GermanWerk, with the same sense. The derivatives energia, i. e. force in action, kheirourgia,  lit. work done by hand, and organon  are found in Spanish in energia  and cirugía, in French énergie, chirurgie  and orgue, English surgery  and organ.

The second root, through the latin opus-opera and operare, is at the origin of the expression for work in Romance languages. Thus we have:


                     French         Italian           Spanish        Portuguese

 (work)           oeuvre           opera              obra                obra

(to work)       oeuvrer         operare          obrar              obrar

(worker)        ouvrier          operario        obrero            obreiro          

(office)           officine          officina          oficina           oficina


     In a similar manner, the Latin word labor has given French labeur, laboratoire, laborieux;  English labor, laboratory, laborious;  Italian lavoro,

Sp. and Portuguese labor.


     Three words to say work: ergon, opera, labor. Doesn’t this say something about its importance? Yet, in Romance languages, it’s another word that is preferred: travail  in French, trabajo  in Sp., trabalho  in Port. This is a term that came from the Latin tripalium, i.e. three posts. At its origin, the tripalium  was an instrument of torture. Later on the word designated the wooden frame used to confine a horse being shod, which is called trave  in English (thus retaining its Latin origin). Slowly, the word acquired other senses: torment, or fatigue, the fatigue of constant traveling,  for example. Thus the word travel  in English means to make a (toilsome) journey  and finds its origin in Old French travailler. Finally, travail  (in French as well as in the other Romance languages) replaced what expressed previously the Latin root opera, which etymologically makes work just the equivalent of torture! (As ou know, in English, travail  is defined as strenuous mental or physical exertion; labor, toil).




Latin         tripalium                                                         instrument of torture


travail   trabajo     travalho                                           torment                 fatigue


travel                                                                               toilsome traveling                work



4.  Boutiques, Shops and Magazines


     It’s an Indo-European form, *dhe (to place, to put), which gave in Greek apothéké with the sense of storeroom, (similarly to bibliothéké  (storeroom for books). An apothecary, whom we call a pharmacist, or a chemist in England, is a “shop-keeper” before becoming a pharmacist, and both notions of “boutique” and “pharmacy” are sometimes confused. For example, the French word boutique  is a phonetic deformation of apothéké, pronounced in Low Greek as apothiké. One can imagine a derivation through the following stages: *aboutique,  becoming *l’aboutique  with an article, and then separated in la + boutique, hence the modern boutique.  In American English a boutique  is a small retail shop, but the Spanish word of same origin, botica, means pharmacy;  another close term, bodega, means cellar, and the Italian bottega, boutique. In all these cases, we see that we change slowly from the place of “deposit “ (French, dépôt = storage), first sense of apothéké, were things are stored  to the place where things are sold.

     As for the English word shop,  it has its origin in Old Dutch schoppe, which gave Schoppen  in German (shed, warehouse) and the Old French word échoppe.  So, whether it’s a boutique  or a shop,  the terms designate first an enclosed place in which things are stored, in other words a magasin. (Ger. Magazin, Sp. almacén, It. magazzino). Besides this is what the word means, a term borrowed from the Arabic makhazin, a plural meaning “places of storage”, “wharehouses”, “silos”. The word magasin  in French took the sense of boutique  when shopkeepers decided to stock their wares in larger places, which are both boutiques and warehouses.

     The word magazine  to designate what we call in English a magazine, as opposed to journal (specialized) or review (erudite), has the same origin. Again, English borrowed the word from French magasin, which, in the XVIIth century had also taken the sense of “newspaper where are “emmagasinées  (stored) diversified informations”. Thus there existed in the XIXth century a magazine called Le Magasin pittoresque. Hence, not surprisingly, magazine  in turn was adopted in French with the same sense of a periodical containing a collection of articles, stories or pictures, thus relegating the word magasin  to its commercial meaning.

     The shopping place par excellence  today is the supermarket. Again the story of the word marché  or market  is an interesting one. The Latin form merx-mercis takes us to commerce, as well as market  and merchant, from Latin mercatus, which had both the sense of commerce and market. There are, of course, parallel forms in the Romance languages: Fr. commerce, marché, marchand;  Sp. comercio, mercado, mercante ;  It. commercio, mercato and mercante, as well as in the Germanic languages, German and Dutch Mark.

     The well-named Mercury  is, of course, the god of commerce, who gave his name to the middle day of the week, mercoris dies,  mercredi, miercoles, mercoledi. A mercenary  is, as the word indicates, a “salaried” person, who receives merchandise  in exchange for his services, whether we call him mercenaire, mercenario or mercenary.


     More interesting is the story of the word merci  and its derivatives. The French word merci, in Old French, meant first salary, then price, a remnant of a period when people were paid with merchandise, and finally favor, grace, or pity. We have kept trace, in French and in English, of this older sense when we say: “être à la merci de quelqu’un” (to be at somebody’s mercy).

     The modern sense appears through the expression “Your mercy”, that is to say “thanks to you”. Our thank you is said gracias  in Spanish, grazie  in Italian. This double original sense (marchandise and thanks) is found in Spanish, where merced  means both salary and favor; in Italian, where mercè  has kept the sense of “grace”, as in the expression chiedere merce, to ask for mercy, whereas the word mérce  (where the tonic accent is different) means merchandise; and in English, as we said, where mercy has the same sense of compassion or forbearance.


5. Street, Straw and Trivial


     The Indo-European root *ster indicated the idea of expanse; hence the Latin strata, It. strada, (road). This same root gave in Gothic the term straujan, to spread; hence the idea of litter  (Ger. Streu)  or straw  (Ger. Stroh), and, of course, the word for street.

     The word for street is rue  in French, which goes back to a root, *reu, that also gave in Latin the word ruga, (Sp. and Port. arruga, It. ruga),  which means wrinkle  or ridge. The streets then poetically are considered as the “wrinkles” of the town. Ruga gave us also the word ruin  (Ger, Ruin,  Sp. ruina,  It. rovina  and the idea of ruggedness.

     On these roads, roll carts and chariots... The Sanskrit rathah, cart, the French words roue  (wheel), rond  (round), rouleau  (roll), Ger. rollen,  rund, Rollen,

Sp. rueda, rodar,  all came from the same root reth meaning to roll.


     What about the adjective trivial? The word goes back to crossroad, the tres viae, three roads to be exact i.e. the town square, where prostitutes were waiting for their customers. The story does not say whether they had wrinkles. . .


6. Voice, Text, Textile and Toilet


     An Indo-European root, *wek, which we find in Sanskrit under the form of vak, leads us directly to Latin vox, which in turn gave in English voice, Fr. voix,  Sp. and Port. voz, It. voce, and through the verb vocare (to call), gave a long series of derivatives, such as avocat, abogado, avvocato, i.e. attorney  (from Old French atorné  (one appointed or empowered to act for another),  or verbs such as to provoke, from Old French provoquer, i.e. to call forth, to challenge; to convoke, from O.F. convoquer,  to call together, to summon;

or to vociferate,  which is another way of using your voice...


     After the voice, the language. Another root *dinghw takes us to Gothic tuggo and Latin dingua, which under the influence of lingere (to lick), changed to lingua. Hence in Romance languages: langue, lengua, lingua  and language, lenguage, Port. linguagem, It. linguaggio, and borrowed from O. French via English, the word language.

     On the side of the Germanic languages, the Indo-European *dinghw gave tongue  in English, Zungen  in German, tunge  in Danish and tong in Dutch.






Sanskrit                     Greek                         Latin                          Gothic

      d                                d                                   d                                  t


     “In the beginning was the Word”. At the origin, the Indo-European root *bal, with the sense of throwing, launching, takes us to Greek parabolê, a comparison, which was adopted by Church Latin (parabola > paraula  in Low Latin, to designate a simple story illustrating a moral or religious lesson, Eng. parable).  Hence, in Spanish palabra, It. parola, and the verb parlare  in Italian and parler  and parole  in French. The Spanish verb hablar, for its part, comes from another root, *bha to talk, which gave such words as fable, fameux, famous, (Sp. and It. fama, reputation (as defined by the word of others) and infant  (again from O.F. enfant, from Latin in-fans  i.e. “(one) unable to speak”.


     Let’s end on a beautiful image, that of the “weaving of words”. In many languages, the combination of words together is compared to the weaving of cloth. The root *tek-teks, to fabricate, evolved toward Latin texere, to weave, which gave us such words as tissu, toile  and texte. The parallelism between text and textile  is found in most Romance languages: texte  and textile  in French, texto  and textil  in Spanish and Portuguese, testo  and tessile  in Italian. The French word toile  (cloth) has also known a strange evolution. The same way as the word bureau  (for desk) comes from bure  (cloth covering a desk), the toilette (a diminutive of toile)  is etymologically a cloth cover for a dressing table used by women at their toilet.

7. War, Catch and Captive (or Bad) Prisonners


     Among man’s “social activities”, war has occupied an important place for a very long time. Yet, the word for war  does not originate in an Indo-European root, nor even a Latin root, but from a Germanic word, werra, which gave war  in English and, with the normal transformation of the w- becoming g- in Romance languages, we have guerre  in French, guerra  in Italian and Spanish. The Latin word for war  was bellum, which we find in words such as bellicose (warlike in manner or temperament), belligerence  (a warlike or hostile attitude or inclination), but also in rebellious (who wants to make war again), from O.F. rebeller.


     War  and death are linked, and so are war  and prisoners  or captives. At the origin of the word captive, there is a root meaning to take, *kap, which led to captivus in Latin. If you may feel sorry for the unfortunate prisonner caught  by the enemy, the captive  himself often is not held in much esteem by the opposite side. For example, if in Spanish cautivo  means prisoner, its Italian equivalent cattivo  means bad or mean.


     All these words originate in a root meaning to take, and *kap is at the head of a paradigm (i.e. a list used as an illustrative example) indicating possession  in both Romance and Germanic languages. Thus the Latin verb capere  gave in Fr. capter, Sp. captar, Fr. chasser, (Eng. to chase), Sp. cazar, It. cacciare  (Think of chicken cacciatore  or its French equivalentpoulet chasseur). It also gave the Italian verb capire  (to catch i.e. to understand). By means of the suffix -cipere, the same root gave also verbs such as to accept, to conceive, to recuperate,  etc.

     It’s again an Italian word with the same root, regata  (from Venitian regatare, to rivalize, from Latin recaptare), which we have adopted in English to name the Lowell regata  or the boat races on the Merrimack. . . Another English sport in the catch. “Catch as catch can”  has the saying goes. The verb to catch  and its Dutch cognate kaetsen  originate as well in the fertile *kap.


8. Host and Hostage


     After war, let’s turn to hospitality, which is not as pacific as one could believe, because the words designating the act or practice of, or a tendency toward being hospitable, all came from an European root *ghost, meaning stranger. From that root, stems the Latin hostis, which can be your guest (French hôte,  Sp. huesped,  It. ospite)  when he is pacific  (a peace maker), but also hostile  (Fr. hostile,  Spanishhostil, Italian ostile).  In Latin, the place where you receive your host was called hospitalia i.e guest rooms; hence the words hôtel, hostel, hospice, hospital, hostess, but also hostage  (a person held as a security for the fulfillment of certain terms).

     As we’ve seen, we have the same derivations in English: host  designates a person who entertain guests in a social or business capacity, and host  is also an army, and hostile  means non hospitable... You receive your host  as a guest, Gast  in German, geist  in Danish, gast  in Dutch. And the place where s/he is received is called a guest house or Gasthaus  in German (or Chambre d’hôte).


9. The Right and the Left


     The ideological connotations contained in the notion of right  are perfectly summed up by these the Sanskrit terms: rjuh, right and raja, king. In fact, the Indo-European root *reg, which gave right  in English, Recht  in German, ret  in Danish and regt  in Dutch, seems to have meant both the right side (or the right hand) and righteousness, the right path. Don’t we say “to be right” in English as the opposite of “to be wrong” or borrow maladroit  from French to say awkward  or gauche? 

     We have the same connotations in Romance languages: The Latin regere gave the French verb régir  (to rule) and the word rex gave roi. As a rule the derivatives of words meaning the right  are meliorative: you are adroit  (skillful) in French, diestro  in Spanish, destro  in Italian. 

     Let’s switch side. Left, gauche, sinistra, izquierda... If European languages do not have all the same root for the term designating the left, they present the same pejorative connotations. In English, left  is akin to Middle Dutch luft meaning weak, useless;  and the word gauche  means awkward of manner, lacking social grace; tactless; clumsy. . . The French gauche  comes from a Latin verb meaning “to wander”, something akin to “not going in the right direction”, and the expression “être gauche” means to be clumsy, unskillful or bad at something. The Italian sinistra, (Eng. sinister, suggesting an evil force or motive) has its origin in the Roman practice of augury when a bird coming from left was regarded as inauspicious. In Portuguese, sinistra  means left and sinistro  means sinister. In Spanish, the word for the left side, izquierda, is a borrowing from the Basque language, which doesn’t prevent that the verb izquierdar  from meaning “to talk nonsense” (or as the French would say, “déraisonner”).


     One last word on the political Right  and political Left.  Again, let me talk about the French. During the French Revolution, at the National Assembly, the progressists sat on the left on the benches of the hemicycle (semicircle), and the reactionaries on the right, hence the expression “to be from the right”. In English, we mean by the Left “the individuals and groups pursuing generally egalitarian political goals by reformist or revolutionary means in opposition to broadly conservative, established, or reactionary interests”and by the Right, “a faction, party, or other political group whose policies are conservative or reactionaries”. Is this again a borrowing from the French?





1. God’s Light


                                    *dei                                                                *ghutom

                                     light                                                               sacrifice


                                                                           Sanskrit              English                    Greek


                *deiwo                        *dyew          hu, sacrifice          god                           théos


                dieu                      Zeus, Jupiter     

                                              atheist , adieu                               enthusiasm


Latin dies  (day)


     At the origin of the word god, we find in Romance languages a single Indo-European root *dei, with the idea of light, luminosity, a root that has evolved in the direction of two forms, deiwo, luminous sky, and *dyew, god, which is also assimilated to the idea of light.

     The *deiwo form evolved in Sanskrit into devah and in Latin into deus, which gave dieu,  Sp.dios, It.dio, Port. deus and their derivatives divine  and devin, devineresse  (soothsayer, seer), whose talent could originate only in the divine.


     The *dyew form, for its part, is at the origin of Jupiter in Latin, Zeus in Greek, i.e. “the father of the day”, then “the day of Jupiter”: jeudi, jueves, giovedi  (Thursday).

     Since God is light and the sole light man has at his disposal is that of the sun, *dyew gave also the Latin term for day, dies. Hence the di component in words indicating days, for example: Sp. día, or Fr. quotidien  (daily), or English diurnal i.e. pertaining to or occurring in a day or each day, etc.


     The Germanic languages, for their part, (Ger. Gott,  Danish gud), borrowed from a root, *ghutom, meaning something like “the one to whom are offered sacrifices”, a trace of which is found in the Sanskrit hu, to sacrifice, and huta, “the one to whom one offers sacrifices”.


     Although it could have seemed logical, good  is not related to god. The Indo-European root *ghadh, to gather, has evolved toward the idea of good, i.e. “well suited”, “that can be put together”. Thus we have gut  in German, god  in Danish, goed  in Dutch (not to be confused from Gouda  < gold!)


     We’re left with the Greek form théos, the origin of which is uncertain. It could originate in a root *dheu, meaning vapor, smoke,  God being perceived as

 a “breath”. If this were the case, théos  etymologically would be connected to smoke, Sp. humo, It. and Port. fumo,  Fr. fumée, connected also to thyme, 

It. timo, Fr. thym , as well as perfume, Sp. perfume, Ger. Parfüm... Nothing is so sure. What is certain, however, is that théos, in addition, gave atheist, pantheon, polytheism, as well as the word enthusiasm  i.e. divine transport, possessed or inspired by a god.


     Curiously, the same root *dheu, to breathe, could possibly be at the origin  of a series of words in the Germanic languages designating the deer  (Dutch dier, Danish dyr, German Thier. Not because the deer “wears” a special perfume, but because it would have been so named from its “breathing”, heard in the forest...This is in the same line with what I said before concerning animals, named according to the manner they are easily identifiable: the fox and its tail:  “the hairy one” or the squirrel, providing shade with its tail. And what about macho-man  himself and his testes  or the diminutive testicles? The word comes from Latin testes, meaning witness to  or attestation of  his virility. . .



2. When Thought Mixes with Weight and Pansy


     At the origin, we find the verb pendere, to hang, let hang, from which are derived verbs such as peser  in French (to weigh, to ponder), Sp. pesar,  It. pesare, and pendre  (to hang), Sp. and Port. pender,  It. pendere), as well as pencher

(to lean) and poids  (It., Port. and Sp. peso). It’s another form of this verb, pensare, which gave in French penser  (to think), Sp. and Port. pensar,  It. pensare;  the image remains the same: penser  (to think) is peser  (to weigh) your arguments.

     In the same etmological series, we find the British pound,  (with a remnant of Livre  in the sign “£”) both measure of money and weight, and with its German equivalent, Pfund. The idea of weighing (peser)  on a scale easily leads us to the commercial activity: after weighing your merchandise in the scale, you have to pay  for it, or literally make peace  with the seller. This by way of saying that the verb to pay  goes back to a Latin verb pacare,  meaning to apease. The verb to spend  also originates in pendere.


     Let’s conclude with the flower that we name pansy  in English. Would you know that, once more, pansy  is just a deformation in pronounciation of pensée  or, to be more poetic, “a fanciful formation from French pensée  (thought) from the feminine past participle of penser  (to think), from Latin pendere (to weigh).” The reason? Pansies were used to symbolize remembrance. For example, a pansy is called viola del pensiero  in Italian and pensamiento  in Spanish.


3. From Writing to Sarcophagus


     What did man utilize to draw pictures and express his first written words? Probably a sharp instrument, silex or blade. At the origin of the idea of writing is a root, *ker-*sker, expressing the idea of cutting, a root that is found as well in Sanskrit with the form krnati, to wound, and krtih, knife. This root however evolved toward many forms, and we’ll consider just a few of them.


     This notion of cutting is found both in Romance and Germanic languages: court  in French, short  in English, corto  in Italian and Spanish, kurz  in German. It is found also in share, shirt,  or in the German Schramme, (a scratch).


     Here is a synoptic view of the evolution of *ker-*sker


                                                   to cut”                                                                                                   

to cut                       to incise                                    piece of meat”             bark



short                       to write                                       sarcophage               leather

shirt                        to describe                                chair / flesh                 bark

                                                                                    charcutier                   cuirass


    It’s in a broader form, *squeribh (to incise), that both originate the idea of scarifying  and that of writing,  as expressed in Spanish escribir, Port. escrever, It. scrivere,  Fr. écrire, Ger. schreiben, to which we could had a long list of derivatives, such as describe, inscribe, transcribe . . .


    Very early however this idea of cutting into  applied to what could be cut into pieces, such as the word écorce (bark) in French, corteza  in Spanish, corteccia  in Italian, or the word cuir (leather), It. cuoio,  Sp. cuero, as well as the knight’s cuirass  made of cuir  (leather), It. corazza, Sp. coraza. We also have cork  in English or Kork  in German to name what the French call a bouchon  (stopper).


    This same root *ker,  through Latin carnis, gave also chair, charnier, charogne in French; i.e. flesh, charnel-house, carrion  .or carne, carnaio, carogna  in Italian; carne, carnerario, carroña  in Spanish, as well as many other derivatives with sometimes differing meanings. Thus to the French charcutier  (pork butcher) corresponds the Italian carnefice  (executioner) and Portuguese carniceiro, close to Spanish carnicero  (butcher).


    Through the intermediary of Greek sarkos  (flesh), we have also cercueil (coffin), said Sarg  in German, and sarcophage  (sarcophagus) in French. i.e “flesh-eating (stone)”.


4. To read, to elect, to pick


    Whoever has picked fruits kowns that they have to be chosen with care. You wont’be surprised then that a same root, *leg, can signify three things: to pick, to gather,  and to choose.  This root, in Greek as well as in Latin,took two different, although parallel, derivations: the Greek verb legein, while retaining its meaning of gathering   or assembling, took on the additional connotation of saying,  i.e. the gathering of words, while legere in Latin, while retaining its own sense of picking or gathering, took on the additional one of reading,  i.e. the gathering of letters.




to gather, pick, choose


Greek  legein                                                                                    Latin  legere

to gather                                                                                   to pick, to choose


       to say                                                                                               to read


       logos                                                                                  to read (lesson

       lexicon                                                                                           to elect

      -logue                                                                                             elegant



    In Romance languages, the verb expressing the idea of reading:  French lire, as well its Spanish, Portuguese and Italian cognates, is linked to the idea of lesson,  (the fact of reading) and to the word legend  (from Medieval Latin legenda, things for reading, and also to sortilege  (the act or practice of fortelling the future by drawing lots, from sortilegus, diviner: Latin sors, lot + legere (to read). This, for the derivation of legere with the sense of reading.


                        French           Spanish          Italian          Portuguese

(to read)         lire                  leer                 leggere           ler

(lesson)          leçon              lección           lezione          leccion

(legend)         légende          leyenda          leggenda        legenda

(sortilege)      sortilège        sortilegio       sortilegio       sortilegio


    As for the derivation of legere with the sense of choosing,  it takes us to cueillir, from Latin colligere, (to pick), élire  (to elect), intelligent,  from Latin intellegere, (to understand), légion  (because Roman legionaries were recruted by choice), élégant, “who knows how to choose”, negligent, “who does not choose”, and finally sacrilege, “one who steals sacred things: sacer, sacred + legere,

to gather, pluck, steal”.


                       French         Spanish            Italian          Portuguese

(to pick)         cueillir           coger              cogliere          colher

(to elect)        élire                elegir              eleggere         eleger

(intelligent)  intelligent     intelingente intelligente   intellingente

(legion)          légion            legión            legione          legião

(elegant)        élégant           elegante         elegante         elegante

(negligent)    négligent       negligente     negletto         negligente

(sacrilege)      sacrilège        sacrilegio       sacrilegio       sacrilego


    As you can see, many of these words are found in English under the forms of borrowings, and in German as well (Lektion, Legende, Legion, elegant).


    The Greek form legein, for its part, is at the origin of the notion of logos and the frequent endings in - logist  and -logy,  (which indicates discourse or expression). More surprisingly, legein in Romance languages gave us the word horloge, (clock), Sp. reloj, It. orologio,  Port. relogio,  “which tells time”.


5. To see and to Know


    Vision and knowledge are, in Indo-European, two associated notions expressed by the root *weid, “to see in order to know”. This duality reappears in Greek with on the one hand, idein, to see, eidôlon, image, and on the other

oida, I know, and eidêsis, science.





     vision, knowledge


      Greek                                           Latin                                      Gothic


idein              histor                   videre            evidens               witan

(to see)   (who knows)                                                               (to know)


                           Latin                                                      English    German



idea                  history           to see            evident     witness       wissen

idol                                          vision             envy          wit                Witz      

                                                                                            wise              weise


    The Greek forms, quantatively speaking, have left only few traces in modern languages, although they are important: as for example idea, which means “existing in the mind, potentially or actually, as a product of mental activity, such as thought or knowledge” (Fr. idée., It. and Sp. idea,  Port. ideia). It gave also the word idol, i.e. the image of a god; and by the intermediary of Latin, history  (Fr. histoire, Sp. and Port. historia, It. storia).

    The Latin forms, on the other hand, have left many traces. For example, the verb videre (to see) has given videre  in Italian, ver  in Spanish and Portuguese and voir  in French. The derivatives of the same verb have produced view (It. Sp. Port., vista, Fr. vue ), visage  (face), It. viso,  Port. visagem  (with the sense of making faces), i.e “what is seen”. From the same Latin verb, by the intermediary of evidens,  comes also evident  (e-, completely , from ex + videns, present participle of videre, to see). Let’s mention also the verb to visit  through visitare, (It. visitare,  Sp.and Port. visitar,  Fr, visiter), “to go to see” . From Latin verb providere, we have the verb to provide  (Sp. proveer, It. provvedere, Port. provêr,  Fr, pourvoir)  and the word providence,  and finally prudent  (from Latin prudens, foreseeing, wise, contraction of providens).


    The Germanic form witan has evolved naturally toward English wit,  (Ger. Witz,  Dan. vid),  wise, (Ger. weise,  Dan, viis,  Dutch wijs),  witness,  as well was the German wissen,  to know, (Danish vide,  Dutch weten).  But the same witan has also enriched Romance languages. To understand this passage, we need to be reminded that there is a general correspondence w/g  between Germanic and Romance. Thus, to take a few examples in various domains: war  and guerre, wardrobe  and garde-robe,  William  and Guillaume,  etc. This is why witan was able to evolve toward Romance forms having an initial g, example: a guide, “one who shows the way by leading”, (from guidar,  to show the way), It. guida, Sp. guía  and Port. guia.


    In conclusion, to use a term that stresses visual perception, it is obvious  or evident etymologically speaking that knowledge is directly linked to the act of seeing.




    Arabic numerals, which in Romance languages are called chiffres,  come from Arabic sifr, (zero) and for numbers from Indo-European *nem (to distribute), which also gave the word numerous.  Even though numbers are “numerous”, let’s limit ourselves to count from one to ten.


1. The Universe is One, Onion too


    The Indo-European root *oin, unique, through Latin unus, has fed the whole range of the Romance languages: unique, unique, unité, union  in French,uno, único, unidad, unión  in Spanish, uno, unico, unità, unione  in Italian, uno, unico, unidade,união  in Portuguese.


    The same Indo-European root has given ains in Gothic, hence German ein, English one,  Dutch and Danish een. The term has had in Germanic languages the same derivatives as in Romance languages, linked as well to the idea of unicity (English one> only,  German ein> einig).


    More interesting are the words universe  and uniform. Universe  comes from Latin universum, (whole, entire, “turned into one”).Uniform,  from Latin uniformis, (of one form: uni- + form). More curious perhaps is the word onion,  a word that has appeared relatively late in French, around the XIIIth century. The Old French word to designate this vegetable was cive  (still used today in my native patois in Western France), from latin cepa, the derivative of which we find in Spanish cebolla  and Italian cipolla,  as well as in such French words as ciboule, ciboulette, civette  (all in the chive  family). Hence both chive, (from O.F. cive,  from Latin cepa, onion) and the word onion  itself (from O.F. oignon)  are borrowings from French.

    Why did the cive  became onion, and what does this onion  have to do with the word one?  Possibly because the shape of the onion  (from Latin unio,

a dialectal word for a kind of onion) refers to the perfect concentric unity of its layers in contrast to the polymerism of, let’s say, garlic.


    The word to say one  in Indo-European came from the root *sem. If it has no derivative with this sense in European languages, it has not disappeared completely. Thus the corresponding Greek forms, heis, one, homos. (similar), hêmi, “which has only one side”, are found in such words as homonym, homogenous, hemicycle. The Latin adverb semper (once and for all, always) may have disappeared in Modern French, but it has given in Italian and Portuguese sempre  and siempre  in Spanish, whereas similis is at the origin of the word similar  in English, semblable  in French, Sp. símil, It. and Port. simile. Under the form simplex (from sem + plectere “folded once”) the same root has given simple  (Fr. and Sp. simple, Port. simples, It. simplice). As for the Latin singulus, (isolated), which gave singular, Fr. singulier,  Sp. and Port. singular, It. singolare, it has also given, in a Latin compound noun, the word singularis porcus, “solitary pig”, which became sanglier  (wild boar) in French  and cinghiale  in Italian.

    In Germanic languages, Gothic sama, corresponding to Indo-European *sem, has given same  and some  in English. It gave German samt, (with), sammeln, (to gather), sämtlich, (all together”, and zusammen  (togeher).


2. Deux (two) and Doubt


    Indo-European *dwi-duwo (two) ,very early, took the sense of duplication: dvih in Sanskrit, dis in Greek - hence bis in Latin - had first the sense of “two times”. The Latin root bis is found at the beginning of many words based on the idea of repetition, as in the word biscuit  (from O.F. bescoit, bescuit,  from Medieval Latin biscoctus (panis) “twice cooked bread”), or the word balance (scale), from Late Latin (libra) bilanx, (a balance) having two scales: Latin bi-, double + lanx, scale, plate, pan).


    From Greek duo came the Latin form duo, which is continued in double , (Sp. and Port. doble, It. doppio), and gave deux, dos, due, Port. dous. More surprising is the story of the verb dubitare, to doubt, i.e. “to be divided between two possibilities”: Fr. douter,  Sp. dudar,  t. dubbiare,  Port. duvidar;  an image that we find in German zweifeln  (to doubt).


    Let us note that in Old French the verb douter  meant at first to fear, hence in French as well in English, the sense of the word redoutable  (redoubtable), “to dread”, ( re- (intensive) + douter, to fear).


    On the Germanic side, the root *dwi  became in Gothic twain, hence English two,  German zwei, Danish to  and Dutch twee, as well as the derivatives of the type twelve, zwölf, tolv, twaalf.


3.  Trinity, Testis or Witness, and Protestants


    The Indo-European way of naming the Trinity, *tre-tri is found in Sanskrit trayah, Latin tres (trois, tres, tre, três)  and Gothic threis (three, drei), Danish tre, Dutch drie. This idea of “trine” takes us directly to what is called in English clover  (any plant of the genus Trifolium, having compound leaves with three leaflets) and in Italian trefoglio,  Sp. trébol,  Port. trevo,  Fr. trèfle. The prefix tri- is found in words such as tricolor, trident, triennium, trifocal,  etc. From the same prefix originates as well the aforementioned word travail  (from tripalium, torture instrument made of three stakes), just plain work in French but toil  in English, i.e. strenuous mental or physical exertion and the adjective trivial  (from trivium- trivia, place where three roads meet, public square).


    The Latin testis, meaning witness  (the same word that gave the diminutive testiculus) gave in the Romance languages testigo  in Spanish, teste  in Italian, témoin  in French, testemunha  in Portuguese as well as testimony, Sp. and It testimonio, testemunho  in Portuguese.


    At the origin of the word testimony  is Latin testis, of course,

(witness); however at the root of it is trei- : three or a third person: only a third party can testify in a conflict opposing two other persons. Or why is the word testament  so named? Because it was executed before a third  person, that is to say a witness. The verbs to attest   and to contest  have the same origin, linked again to the idea of witness; as well as the verb to protest, which first meant to declare. Hence the word protestants, who, contrary to popular etymology, are not “protesting”  againt their catholic brethren, but who bear witness  to their faith.


4. From Quart to Squadron


    The Indo-European *kwtwr is found very regularly in Latin quattuor, which  gave quatre, It. quattro, Sp. cuatro  and its derivatives, quarante, quatorze,  but also the word cahier, It. quardeno, Sp. cuaderno  (notebook): for the Romans a “cuaderno” meant a group of four leaflets. This idea of things grouped by four is found in many etymologies, for example, carrefour  (crossroads), which is the crossing of four  roads, and via Latin quadrus, we have quatrain, (a stanza of four lines), quart  (from O.F. quarte  (fourth part), quarry,  from O.F. quarrière, from quarre  (square stone), or squadron, a square formation of troups, from Italian squadrone.     The same root gave fidvor in Gothic, which in turn gave four  in English, vier  in German and in Dutch, and fire  in Danish.


5. Quincunx and Pentagone


    What’s a quincunx?  Etymologically, from Latin quincunx, “five-twelths of the Roman coin (as denoted by five dots or dashes so arranged)”, a coin worth five ounces, but for a landscaper, for instance, it’s an arrangement of five  objects, such as trees, with one at each corner of a rectangle and one at the center.

    The Pentagon, as we all know, is a five-sided  building in Arlington, Virginia, containing the Department of Defense. A penthouse, however, is not a five-sided house. This pent- is from Old French appentis, meaning appendage, from Latin appendix (<appendere, to append, attach: ad, on + pendere (to suspend, hang).


    This as an introduction to the number five , and a way of saying that the phonetic correspondences between an Indo-European root and Indo-European languages are not always visible. And yet, as the following illustration shows, the words to say five: panca  in Sanskrit, pente  in Greek, quinque  in Latin, Fimf  in Gothic, all continue the Indo-European root *penkw, which seems to differ greatly from its derivatives. There is however a very simple explanation.


Normal Correspondences




     Sanskrit                Greek                         Latin                          Gothic

        p   c                      p  t                             p  qu                           f  hw


Actual Correspondences


      panca                  pente                        quinque                        fimf


    This chart shows that both Sanskrit and Greek words correspond to the expected forms. On the other hand, the initial of the Latin word (qu instead of p) and the ending of the Gothic word (f instead of hw) do not follow the rule. In both cases an assimilation has taken place, the initial p- being in Latin assimilated by the qu (p...qu > quinque) , and in Gothic the final hw being assimilated by the initial f- (f   hw > fimf).

    At a second stage of evolution, quinque in Latin and fimf in Gothic have been altered as well. Thus, from *penkw to cinq   or füng,  we have:






French  Italian  Spanish  Portuguese

 cinq     cinque    cinco      cinco





                                                                   English  Danish  Dutch  German 

                                                      five        fem         viif      fünf 


    Thus we have the French series cinq - quinze - cinquante  (5-15-50) corresponding to cinque - quindici - cinquanta  in Italian, cinco -quince - cincuenta  in Spanish, and cinco - quinze - cinquenta  in Portuguese; on the Germanic side, we have five - fifteen - fifty  corresponding to fünf - fünfzen -fünfzig  in German.


6. Six and Siesta


    Be careful! sex in Latin means six   in English as well as in French. Their cognates are easy to recognize: Spanish seis,  Italian sei  and Portuguese seis.  They all go back to the same root *seks, and all (except English) are derived from Latin; the same way as English six  (Old English s(i)ex), German sechs  and Danish seks  are derived from Germanic saihs.


    In Greek, the Indo-European root has ended in hex, which we find in hexagone, hexameter, etc. If sexagenarian  is easy to figure out, (a person sixty or between sixty and seventy years old), semester  (from German Semester,  from Latin (cursus) semestris)  indicates that, etymologically, it is a period of six months: < sex (six) + mensis (month), much longer then that our modern academic semester of 15 weeks.


    English has borrowed the word siesta  from Spanish, a rest, usually taten after midday meal. To understand the midday part, we need to go back to the manner the Romans had to count hours: between sunrise and sunset: 12 hours, which varied in length with the seasons, that is to say according to the length of the day. These twelve hours were divided symetrically in relation to the middle of the day, and whatever the season, winter as well as summer, the sixth hour  was the one that began at noon, called sexta hora.  Hence Spanish siesta, “the sixth hour”, the warmest and the most inviting for a rest.


7. September or November?


    Here is a rare excception, number seven, sept  in French, (Sp. siete,  It. sette, Port. sete), has practically the same form as the Indo-European root from which it stemmed: *sept. In Greek, however, the intial -s has become h, which gave hepta  (seven) and hebdomos  seventh, which gave French hebdomadaire,  (every seventh day), i.e. weekly. On the Germanic side, from Gothic sibun, we’ve inherited seven, sieben in German, syv  in Danish and zeven  in Dutch, which all go back to the same Indo-European root.


    In Latin, septem gave September,  the seventh month. Why the seventh when we all know that septembre  (Sp. septiembre, It. settembre, Port. setembro)  is today the ninth month of the year? Simply because we’re talking about the seventh  month of the Roman year.


    Finally, what we call a week in English and a semaine  in French, (Sp. and Port. semana, It settimana), is, as the Italian etymology suggests, a span of seven days, just a Latin variant of the Greek hebdomos mentioned above.


8. Octave and Musical Diversion


    Without much phonetic originality, the Indo-European *okt gave otto  in Italian, ocho  in Spanish, oito  in Portuguese, huit  in French, oktô  in Greek, eight  in English, acht  in German, otte  in Danish, and achtin  Dutch, a regularity that we find in October, the eighth (Roman) month and octave, the interval of eight diatonic degrees between two tones, one of which has twice as many vibrations per second as the other.


    Since there’s not much to say about number eight,  and we’ve just mentioned octave, let’s talk about the music scale, gamme  in French (as in gamut  for range). Its name originates in the Greek letter gamma  used when notes were written with the help of letters: A for la, B for ti, C for do, D for re, E for mi, F for fa  and G for sol. Sol, or rather gamma, was then the first note of the scale, hence the word gamme. Later on, to name the notes were used the first syllables of a Christian hymn to Sancte Iohannes (Saint John):


    Ut queant laxis

     Resonare fibris

     Mira gestorum

     Famuli tuorum

Solve polluti

Labii reatum

     Sancte Iohannes


    The ut was found to be too muffled, not enought resonant, and was replaced in the XVIIIth century by do, somewhat created half-hazardly and with no etymology. As for the word solfège, its name derives from the use of the sol-fa  syllables to note the tones of the scale.


9. Nine and Novelty


    There isn’t much to say about number nine, simply because normal and expected transformations take us from the root *newn to neuf   in French, nueve in Spanish, nove  in Italian, neun  in German, negen  in Dutch and ni   in Danish. Now we know that November  was the ninth month of the Roman year and that a nonagenarian  is a person who is ninety years old or between ninety and one hundred years old.

    More interestingly perhaps, in Romance languages, and more specifically in French, is the homonym of number nine  (neuf) with new  (neuf). In this case, it’s the root *new that leads to Greek neos, Latin novus and Gothic niujis, from which are derived the words described on the following chart.




      Gothic                                Greek                                       Latin

     niusjis        nu                     neos                                      novus

      new          now


Eng.   Ger.    Dan.  Dutch                                             Fr.          It.      Sp.     Port.

new  neu     ny     nieuv                                          neuf   nuovo   nuevo   novo


 neo- neology


    From Latin novus comes the novice  (< novicius), which designated first a slave recently bought, then a religious who has not yet made his vows, and finally a beginner in everything. The Greek neos has given a productive prefix, neo-, which we encounter in neophyte, neo-classicism, etc. as well as in the word neon. Neon gaz was so named, because at the time of its discovery (the word in French is dated 1898) it was “the new gas”, from neuter of neos, new.  Chysler thought it had a novel concept of a car by named on its subcompacts Neon. . .

    Spanish shows a particular sense of humor by naming a fiancé novio  (from novatus) and novillo  the young bull. . . as if the two were related. . .


10. Dean, Dime and Decimate


    The derivatives of the root *dek’m is as regular as the previous ones: it gave Greek deka, Latin decem and Gothic taihun, hence the series of names to say ten in English, tein  in Dutch, ti  in Danidh and zhen  in German. Through Latin, we have dix  in French, diez  in Spanish, dez  in Portuguese, dieci  in Italian.


    The tenth month of the Roman year was December. We’ve seen already that the word decanus, which gave dean  in English from Anglo-Norman, literally means “(one) set over ten ”. We remember also that Spanish dinero, as well as Portuguese dinheiro,  goes back to Latin denarius, from the same root. The denarius was a silver coin worth ten  aces (The ace of our card games was in Latin both a weigh and a monetary unit.)


    From Greek deka, we have decimal, decade  (a period of ten years), Decalogue (deca + logos, speech, word) i.e. the Ten Commandments, etc. But perhaps the most interesting derivatives are the verb to decimate  and the once precious little dime. Both words come from decimus, the latter from decima  (pars) and O. F.  dime, disme, i.e. the tenth part of something. The femininine form, decima, designated a tax consisting in taking the tenth  of what a property was producing, which gave modern French dîme  (with circonflext accent replacing the “s” of O.F. disme)  and English tithe  (from Gothic taihum and Old English theotha, tenth). As for the verb to decimate, it originally meant “to select by lot and kill one in every ten of.” Its modern sense has somewhat increased tenfold,  (we would say in French décuplé = ten times as great) since its modern sense is to destroy or kill a large part of. . .  Ainsi va la vie des mots. . .


© 2002, Joseph E. Garreau, Ph. D.

Professor of French

Department of Cultural Studies

University of Massachusetts Lowell