Thursday, October 23, 2014

Language of Confusion: Gests

Gest is a part of many words (it’s also a word by itself, something I didn’t know before this—it means a story or an exploit). It’s at the beginning of gesture and gestate, and at the end of suggest and digest. Plus there’s the word jest—are they related? Or is this going to be another one of those things where no one has any idea what anything means?

Probably the latter, but let’s see.

Gest and jest actually come from the same place, the Old French geste, which means an action. Further back in classical Latin, it’s gesta, which means events or deeds, and is related to gerere, which can mean wage, perform, or to carry. Okay, that kind of makes sense.

Gesture has a pretty similar lineage. It showed up in the early fifteenth century, coming from the Medieval Latin gestura, bearing or behavior, and classical Latin gestus, which means gesture and is another version of gesta. Gestation showed up in the early sixteenth century (gestate didn’t come until over two centuries later!) and at first it meant…riding on horseback. Um, wow. The whole going-to-give-birth thing didn’t come until a century later. It turns out, both definitions kind of make sense. Gestation comes from the classical Latin gestationem (related to gerere), which means carrying. A horse carries a person and a person carries a baby, right?

Now, for the suffix -gest. Suggest showed up in the early sixteenth century from the classical Latin suggestus (pulpit) and suggere (bring). Suggestion actually came earlier, in the mid-fourteenth century, where it meant something like temptation. It comes from the Anglo French/Old French suggestioun and classical Latin suggestionem, which is pretty much just suggestion as we know it. It’s a mix of gest, carry, and the prefix sub-, meaning up (that might seem weird since sub- usually means beneath, but it really did used to mean up). So it means to carry up, in the sense of “bringing up an idea”. I’m not sure how evil got mixed into it, though.

Ingest is easy, showing up in the early seventeenth century from the classical Latin ingestus/ingerere, where it means to shower or heap upon. The in- prefix means “into” in this case. Since the literal translation would be something like “carry into”, I guess the Romans went figurative here.

Next is digest. Both the writing kind of digest and the food one showed up in the late fourteenth century, both coming from the Latin digestus, compiled, and digerere, which is just plain digest. That word is a mix of dis-, apart, and the carry from gerere, so to carry apart. That makes sense for digesting food, but it kind of seems like the opposite of a writing digest. But digestus means compiled, so…

Okay, maybe the next one will make more sense. Congest showed up in the early fifteenth century, where it meant “bring together”. It comes from the classical Latin congestus, compilation or heap, and congerere, store or bring together. The con- prefix is the together part, and with gerere it’s “carry together”, and since congestion is a bunch of stuff that’s brought together, it does make sense!

Is that all? Ha ha, no. Register is also a -gest word. It showed up in the late fourteenth century, from the Old French register and Medieval Latin registrum. That word comes from the classical Latin regesta/regestus (there’s the e!), which literally means thrown back. That of course comes from regerere, which can mean record or carry back (the re- means back, so they used this word both literally and figuratively).

Oh, and for the record, the word gist isn’t related to any of these. It actually comes from the same word as jet.

Whoa, that was a long one.

Dictionary of Medieval Latin


  1. Surely you jest!
    You know what your series really demonstrates? How wrong many movies are with their dialogue. Films set during the Middle Ages shouldn't have characters speaking most of those words.

  2. Well we can't expect accuracy out of films set in the Middle Ages, after all.

  3. I never knew any of that! I thought it just went with the phrase. Very informative!

  4. Gestation meaning riding on horseback... I'm going to take a while to wrap my head around that one.

  5. I love hearing how words are related and where they come from. Probably if movies used that kind of language we wouldn't understand what anyone was saying, but it would still sound cool!


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