Thursday, September 17, 2015

Going Postal, Part 2

Yay, more reposts! This one is my very first Language of Confusion post, back when I didn’t think it would be a weekly thing (just count yourself lucky that it doesn’t have a ridiculous title after it, which I kept up for a while for some reason). Anyway, here’s desert and desert!

The Language of Confusion [First posted 10/17/2010]

It’s a good thing we have context. How else would you tell what I mean when I write tear? There’s a tear in my eye right now. Yeah, a stick poked into my cornea. It didn’t rip, but now it’s been crying a little (just kidding by the way ;))

But the English language (I can’t really speak for other languages) is full of words like that. Is it wind or wind? Wound or wound? Desert or desert?

It’s part of the magic of words. What’s interesting is the etymology surrounding the words.

First, let’s take desert. In the abandon sense, it comes from the Old French (twelfth century) deserter. No, that isn’t very far. But that word specifically meant to abandon one’s duty. And no, that isn’t the end. Deserter comes from the late Latin desertare or desertum, which is a verb-izing (okay, aside: my word verbizing is essentially doing the same thing as what I’m describing; it takes one word and makes it a different tense to describe something) of the Latin deserere, which also means abandon. Parsing the word gives us de (undo), and serere, which the word series also stems from. So deserere means undoing a series or repetition, stopping an act that is supposed to keep going on.

But what about the desert wasteland? Thank the Old French again, although instead of deserter, this one is exactly the same: desert. It, not surprisingly, means wilderness, destruction, ruin. And like the first, it also stems from the late Latin desertum and Latin deserere. So how did the two different meanings get to be the same thing? That’s the fault of Middle English, who decided it was appropriate for a waterless, treeless region.

So the reason these two words are spelled the same is because two different languages (Middle English and Old French) used the same derivation to mean different things, and as they evolved, they became the same. If you check French, the word is désert, although as you can see it has a tilde over the e. That’s more of a French thing.

All this may not be correct (although they are precise as two sources corroborated it), but if you have anything to add, or any more dual words, let me know. Words are fun.

Okay, the humor is painful and I was really way too fond of parentheses, like even more than I am now. Plus, no sources?! Frigging hell, four years of college! Source your material! This isn’t Wikipedia, dammit!


  1. How did you ever get through college?
    Actually, it's interesting to see how this series has evolved over time. You are very precise now.

  2. pfft No one cares about sources. They just want you to say things confidently.

  3. You've come a long way, I'm glad you didn't desert this series... sorry...

    I'm interested in where dessert comes into it, too. It sounds French to me as well.

  4. We need to smack the Middle English and the Old French a few dozen times.

  5. So this is where it all began...

  6. If you say it with enough authority, people will believe you.... Just ask my dad.


Please validate me.