Saturday, July 22, 2000

Language growth
July 8, 2000
June 24, 2000
The law and Latin
June 10, 2000
Vague words
May 27, 2000
Words from war
May 13, 2000

Partial twins

ESSAY and assay once had the same meaning. It was only after the fifteenth century that they acquired different meanings. Both come from the Latin exagium meaning weighing via the old French assaier. Originally, both essay and assay had underlying connotations of testing by weighing. The old connotation is retained in today’s assay as in analysing precious metals. Essay as a verb was earlier used as test or try. The verb is now not in use but essay survives as a noun after being used for a short, non-fictional literary composition by Francis Bacon in 1597 as the title of a collection of such pieces. Bacon himself borrowed the word from the Essais of Montagine, published in 1580.

Deck, both the noun and the verb come from the Dutch dec, which meant covering. Deck, the noun, as in the deck of a ship took on its nautical sense in the early sixteenth century. The original usage was in the sense of a covering, canvas or tarpaulin, for a boat. Gradually, the meaning changed from a roof protecting what is beneath to a floor for those walking above. The further application to a pack of cards perhaps comes from the notion of the cards in a pile, one on top of the other like the successive decks of a ship.

Estate and state both come via French estat, which has its roots in Latin status, meaning way of standing or condition. Originally, estate and state were very close in meaning. The now archaic ‘reach man’s estate’ signifies ‘reach the state of manhood’. From the fifteenth century, they began to diverge, estate taking the semantic path via interest in property to such property itself and finally, in the eighteenth century, to the land owned by someone. State in the political sense comes from Latin expressions such as status rei publicae, condition of the republic.


Sauce and ketchup are words often used like synonyms. The intriguing detail of their origin is that even though they come from different languages, the meaning of the root is the same. Sauce comes via the French sauce, which is derived from the Latin sal or salt. Ketchup is Chinese in origin, from koechiap or brine of fish. It came to English via the Malay kichap and was adopted as catchup which is the catsup of American English and ketchup of British English.

Devise and divide come from the same French root devis, a division or contrivance. Devis itself later took on the meaning of plan with the derivative devise. In order to divide something, planning is required, the semantic path of both from the same word becomes clear with this background. The word device, a simple machine, evolved much later.


At times, the reverse of the above takes place. A word that is used in more than one sense in the language of origin shrinks in meaning when it is borrowed by another. For instance, in Arabic, khat means line, moustache, message, royal order, insignia and letter. But in Hindi, khat shrinks to letter alone. Shaadi in Persian means happiness, joy and wedding, the Arabic adalat means justice, decision and court, tabla means a small chest for goods, a magical box and a musical instrument and daulat refers to kingdom, rule, fate and wealth. In every case, Hindi has retained the last meaning alone. One reason for this shrinkage could be the prior existence of words with these meanings and another could be the way the user, to whom a language belongs, wants to use it.