Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Language of Confusion

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.


  1. Words and language fascinate me. Especially the influence of Latin and Old English. btw I"m in MN, and will be sending you the cookies when I get back.

  2. Sure, don't worry about it. Although the thought of cookies is quite appetizing. And delicious.

  3. Wait a second. I thought desert was what you ate at the end of a meal. With lots of whipped cream on it. No wonder it's French in origin. The French are good at deserts. Makes total sense.

    Great. Now I'm starving.

    (As you can see, I usually have nothing to add to serious discussions except unappreciated sillness.)



  4. Polish and polish.

    The only way I can remember how to spell desert and dessert is that my brother could eat two desserts, so it had 2 "s"'s.

  5. desert - to abandon or a vast place where little or no life exists - or (normally deserts) a persons worthiness or entitlement to reward or punishment

    Dessert - what you eat at the end of a good meal as long as it is served or servable.

  6. Words are SO fun. And origins. I love how similar German and English can be sometimes simply because of their origins. Also Celtic languages are REALLY fascinating because they have no relation to latin.


    Back to the word thing. I especially love words that don't happen in english, hehe, because apparently I'm weird like that. Schadenfreude being the classic example of thatsies.


  7. Ooh. Non-English words in the English language. I think I'll write about those after I finish my look into dual words. :) And imagine the origin of Asian words. They're built with characters that have all sorts of meanings themselves!


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