Saturday, November 16, 2002

Borrowed words

THE word ransack comes from the Vikings who were blond, muscular, sturdy warriors, known for their plundering skills. They came to England via France in the eleventh century, bringing with them a whole body of French words. The Saxons, the original inhabitants of the country, tenaciously clung to their Saxon, taking up French elements to produce a richer blend of English for the future. This shows that English has traditionally borrowed words from other languages. Ransack is an Old Norse word, which comes from ransaka, a combination of rann, house and saka, to seek. Thus, originally, ransacking was used to mean house searching. The word ramshackle also came from the same source.

Prodigal, prodigy and progeny are all used for children. The prodigal son is used to mean the odd one out. Prodigal comes from the Latin prodigere, meaning to squander. This went on to mean a wastefully extravagant son. But why are sons alone thought to be financially reckless? The origin of this differentiation on gender terms can be traced to the Bible. In Luke 15:11-32 is the parable of the prodigal son who leaves home and behaves in a reckless manner, later making a repentant return. So, the prodigal child became a son who went away and come back repentant, he may or may not be extravagant. Prodigy refers to a very gifted child. It comes from the Latin prodigium, meaning a monster or an unnatural happening. With the passage of time this word stopped being used to refer to a monster and was used to mean something different from the usual or natural. The phrase ‘a child prodigy’ has its roots in this sense of the word. Progeny or offspring comes from the Latin progignere, meaning to beget.

Multiple facts
October 26, 2002
October 12, 2002
Where did this one come from?
September 28, 2002
Who changed the meaning?
September 14, 2002
Who coins new words?
August 31, 2002
Current trends
August 17, 2002
August 3, 2002
Grandparent languages
July 20, 2002
Thank you computers!
July 6, 2002
Computer-created words
June 22, 2002
Fiddling with words, again!
June 8, 2002

Sometimes misinformation about the etymology of a word can lead to an alteration in its spelling. Posthumous is one such instance. It comes from the Latin postumus, or late-born, a superlative of posterus, or coming after. For years, it was believed that posthumous came from the Latin post humus, literally ‘after the earth’, i.e. after burial. Hence followed the insertion of the alphabet ‘h’ in the original spelling.

The artist’s easel does make things easy, but that is not how the word easel originated. Easel comes from the Dutch ezel, meaning ass. This was used to convey that an easel does the donkeywork of holding the canvas, just like the clotheshorse, that does the work of carrying clothes.

Belfry, the part of a tower or steeple in which bells are hung, has long been associated with the word bell. The origin of this word lies in the earlier times when foreign invasions were frequent. It comes from the old French berfrei, made up of two words meaning fort as protector, and peace. The tower that later came to house bells was thus originally a protector of peace. In thirteenth-century England the word was used to denote a movable siege tower.


The Hindi word aadarsh means ideal, perfect, suitable to be emulated or a principle that deserves to be followed. Originally, the Sanskrit aadarsh meant a mirror. Since a mirror faithfully reflects whatever is placed before it, in Sanskrit, aadarsh came to be applied to copies of books, a pattern or anything that could be copied. The copy of a work came to be called an aadarsh as it faithfully reproduced the original, doing the work of a mirror. When this word was incorporated into Hindi, the sense of ‘being good enough to imitate’ was further expanded to include anything that was imitable.

This feature was published on November 9, 2002