§50. Interesting Words

Let’s warm up with some derivatives of the -tas family. Latin has at least three adjectives that mean “empty”: vacuus, vanus, and inanis (E vacuous, vain, and inane). All three formed abstract nouns in itas: vacuitas, vanitas, and inanitas. Vacuity and inanity are still close in meaning today, but vanity has acquired a specialized meaning associated with pride.

From the noun animus (“mind,” “spirit,” “passion”), Latin derived the adjective animosus (“full of passion”), and from animosus came animositas (E animosity). Unanimous and magnanimous derive from the Latin compound adjectives un-animus (“of one mind”) and magn-animus (“of great spirit”); unanimity and magnanimity are regular derivatives of un-anim-itas and magn-anim-itas. “Even-mindedness” is equanimity, from aequ-anim-itas.

The Latin language developed wonderful abstract nouns from adjectives of size and number. Just as magnus produced magnitudo (“greatness”), so multus yielded multitudo (“many-ness”).[1] As a derivative of quantus (“how big?”), quantitas should mean “how-big-ness”; but in Latin it came to suggest “how-many-ness,” and that meaning endured. What would English do without the words quantity and quality? It was the Roman statesman and writer Cicero who coined qualitas (“what’s-it-like-ness”), from the adjective qualis (“of what kind?”), to translate the Greek philosophical word ποιὁτης. To the chagrin of purists, many people today use quality as an adjective. If you’re going to enjoy a “quality experience,” you’d better make your peace with Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Though English (influenced by French) has the quasi-Latin adjective forms maternal, paternal, and fraternal, Latin in fact added the otherwise rare morpheme -nus to nouns of family relationship: mater > maternus, pater > paternus, and frater > fraternus. These adjectives led to the derived nouns matern-itas, patern-itas, and fratern-itas. In form, mater-n-ity corresponds to the native English mother-li-ness, whereas matri-mony more closely matches mother-hood. A “paternity suit” is, in a manner of speaking, about a motherhood issue—without benefit of matrimony. The brotherly adjective fraternus had no sisterly counterpart in Latin; did the Romans have something against sisters? In later Latin there was a noun sororitas, origin of E sorority (= “sisterhood”).

The rallying cry of the French Revolution was “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”— “Freedom, equality, and brotherhood.” E equality has its source in aequus > aequ-alis > aequal-itas, the same etymology as Fr. égalité!. That French form of the noun has no direct English derivative, though we have borrowed the French egalit-arian.

  1. The University of Victoria motto, Multitudo sapientium sanitas orbis, means “A multitude of the wise is the health of the world.” It is a quotation from the Biblical Apocrypha (Wisdom of Solomon).


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part I - Latin Copyright © 2016 by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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