Friday, November 28, 2008

How Smart You Are

A single Indo-European root *wer has transmuted into a dozen concepts in English. The verb means “to turn or bend,” and gives us such constructions as -ward, as in toward, rightward, forward. You can notice the turn or bend in that. Through a Germanic root meaning “to become,” we get the English concept of worth. A twist of fate – the metaphor is millennia old – became wyrd, weird. Verse, version, vertebra, adverse, extrovert, subvert, universe. You can see the “turn” concept behind all of them.

I’ve hardly begun with *wer, but we can already see the metaphorical and abstract uses multiplying. Even getting your head around the general concept of what a turn is is well beyond a chimp or a dolphin (though they might get concrete examples), but this is many times more complex than even that basic idea.

Wreath, writhe, and wrath all come from a *wer descendant meaning “to twist.” Even in English there is enough similarity in the sound of the words that we have to use very precise decoding and numerous cues from context to separate them, but we do it automatically. Worry, wring, wrong, and wrangle all come from twist.


With a bit of sound-change we arrive at bracken and briar, twisted plants. Our remote ancestors called everything with a bend in it “that twisty thing” at first, but learned to shade it so subtly that with the tiniest of changes our hearers know exactly what kind of twisty thing we are talking about – whether it is an object, an emotion, or a fate that is being twisted. Even ribald, rhombus, and brusque came out of *wer, through many variations.

Rhapsody (through a verb to sew – see the turn?)

When I said a dozen concepts above, I lied, so as not to scare you away. These words all come from only one version of *wer. There are other roots strikingly similar that have nothing to do with bending - other *wer’s as it were, that mean to raise or lift, a bodily infirmity, to perceive or watch, to cover, to burn, water, a squirrel – all unrelated, and each having its own many descendants. Not to mention *were, *were, and *were, meaning broad, to find, and to speak. *were-o trustworthy, *wiro man.


lorraine said...

Hello: I came you to from an older Miserable Donuts comment you made from back tracking on his current entry. I found it very interesting and have tracked your various links you have mentioned. What an amazing tool this is for people to interact from "out of the blue" and find new and informative ideas. I didn't have much to comment on until I arrived at the end and read the Cummings Onan generator entry. Now I got that! I am certain that few would but that was FUNNY! I live in California and have attempted a blog to chronicle my travels in the early 70's to India and points beyond - including Afghanistan- but find it so difficult to write consistetly and well. I admire your writing and will check in frequently. I am a milblog slave and love them all. Glad to have made your acquaintance. I love language and word usage - I'm related by marriage to Sarah Palin - her husband's grandmother is my aunt. Everyone in the family speaks like that. Logic is in the ear of the listener - it does appear. Thanks again for your consistant blog. Lorraine

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you, Lorraine. I recommend trying to imitate a favorite writer as a way to start improving.

jlbussey said...

That was a singularly fascinating post, AVI. Enjoyed every word of it!

Donna B. said...

wergeld... did that come from some other word? Or do I remember the spelling wrong?

GraniteDad said...

Yes, it's Weregeld from the German meaning "man" and "gold" I think, which referred to the fact that is was in payment for wrongful death. Going on memory here.... but on checking Wikipedia it seems to back me up. And Wikipedia is never wrong.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, from that last PIE root *wiro meaning man, which also gives us werewolf.

milieu said...

*wer seems to be an important root now that you mention it.

In sanskirt vriksha is tree,
vriddhi means increase and vrikritti means deformity.

There are many more I am sure.