§11. Interesting Words

(Here is the first in a series of etymological discussions intended for casual reading and enjoyment, not for intensive study. The words chosen for comment will not necessarily be drawn from the assigned word lists. However, the discussion will always be directly related to the content of the current chapter.)

Though their roots are unrelated, via and vita are sometimes confused, on account of the fact that vita became vie in French. Neither word has given the English language a simple common noun: as we trudge along the road of life, we do so in plain Anglo-Saxon. However English uses via as a convenient term that means “by way of”; and when Canadians take a railway voyage (from Latin viaticum, “travel money”), they go by VIA Rail—if there are any trains left to ride.[1] The Roman road was a marvel of ancient engineering. The “layered” or “paved” road, [via] strata, gave us street, one of the oldest Latin words in English. The “broken” or “beaten” road, [via] rupta, came into English much later as route. Lexicographers can’t agree whether viable is derived from vita (“able to maintain life”) or from via (“able to be travelled”)—or possibly from both.

Arena (classical Latin harena) has had a curious semantic history. The original Latin word meant “sand”; then it was specialized to mean “the sand of the amphitheatre”; then it was applied to the scene of the contest, though not to the physical structure. When arena came into English in 1627, it was used to describe the ancient amphitheatre itself; considerably later it was broadened to suggest a battlefield or any other sphere of public action. In today’s Romance languages, the harena derivative may still be a general word for “sand”: this is true of Spanish arena and Italian réna, but not of French arène. In the 20th century, the form aréna has been borrowed by Quebec French as a loan-word from English, to mean a “hockey rink.”

Camera was a technical term in classical Latin—a Greek loan-word that meant “vault” or “arched roof.” In later Latin it came to mean a “room”; and through French it gave us chamber. Thus camera and chamber are perfect examples of English DOUBLETS (§8). Our modern camera was originally called a camera obscura (“dark room”), from the little chamber where the photographic exposure takes place. When a political body goes behind closed doors to meet “inside the room,” it is said to be in camera. From the French adaptation of Spanish camarada and camerado (“roomful,” “roommate”), English acquired camaraderie and comrade. Thus we can say that the ETYMOLOGICAL MEANING of comrade is “roommate.” Because of semantic change, the etymological meaning will often be very different from the modern dictionary meaning.

The Latin word area also changed meaning with the passage of time. In antiquity it denoted a vacant space in or around a house, and in particular a “threshing-floor.” That is the etymological meaning of E area, which obviously has a much broader meaning today.

If you want an example of a simple Latin noun that has undergone some unlikely changes in form, how about cauda (“tail”)? Its descendants include the English words coda, queue, cue, and coward. As Ring Lardner said, you can look it up.

  1. English idiom has been strained in this sentence, since the word voyage is now restricted mainly to sea travel; a trip by land is better described as a journey (from Latin diurnum, “a day’s travel”).


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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.

Share This Book