119 Years of Trust Roots THE TRIBUNE
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Saturday, July 10, 1999



Strange origins

IT is quite easy to jump to conclusions while tracing the history of some words. It is all too easy, for instance, to believe that the Latin post humus (after the earth, after the burial) must be the origin of posthumous. The word posthumous however comes from the Latin postumus, which means late-born, or born after the death of the father. Postumus itself was a superlative of posterus, meaning ‘to come after’. The alphabet ‘h’ was added much later, when it came into regular use.

Prodigal, progeny and prodigy are all words related to children. All come from different roots. Prodigal meaning reckless, extravagant comes from the Latin prodigere, which means ‘to squander’. Progeny comes from the Latin progignere, which means ‘to beget’. Prodigy, meaning a very gifted child, has a strange origin: it comes from the Latin prodigium, which refers to a monster or an unnatural happening.

Ransack came from the Norse rannsaka, a combination of rann (house) and saka (to seek). Salver does not have such literal origins. A silver salver today means an ornamental tray. But, salver comes from the Spanish salva, based on the verb salvar, meaning ‘to save’. A salva was a tray from which the king’s taster sampled the food just to ensure that it was not poisoned. The tray was thus basically a safeguard.

Stepfather is more literal in its make-up. The word step here comes from the old English steop which itself is derived from the Germanic root which means bereave. Thus, stepfather or stepmother has acquired family status because of the bereavement of a parent or, because a parent or spouse has been bereft of his or her partner.

The phrase ‘to the bitter end’ implies the absolute end with danger and difficulty involved. Bitter end was the nautical term for the final part of the rope or cable left around the bilts (special posts on the deck) when the rest was over board. When the rope was laid out till the bitter end, that was it, there was no more to go.


According to the origins, words in Hindi are divided into four categories — tatsam, tadbhav, deshaj and videshi. Tatsam words are those that are taken from Sanskrit and have been retained in Hindi in the original form. In their voyage of thousands of years, words like jal, nadi, dev, pati, gur, pustak, kavi, vriksh, manushya, mukh, mata, pita, prithvi and aakash remain unchanged.


This feature was published on July 3, 1999

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