Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Language of Confusion 4: The Sequel Everyone Said Wouldn’t Happen but for Some Reason Did and It’s about as Bad as You Expect

Yay! Word nerdery! Today’s word is the word that started me on this whole mess: tear :’ o. Because the pronunciations are different, I think it’s probably like entrance, where the identical spellings are a coincidence. Let’s see if I’m right!

The noun version is what comes out when you’re sad. Tear descended from the similar Old English teahor, which is the same as its Proto-Germanic ancestor. The other Proto-Germanic descendants (Old High German, Gothic, Old Norse, among others) have similar words, although German and High German actually begin with z’s (you got to love German; the only thing better is when they use k’s for c’s).

Anyway, Proto-Germanic, like most languages on the other side of the world, descent from the all-encompassing Proto-Indo-European. The word? Dakru or draku. Yes, that’s where tear comes from. If you look at Latin and its cousins, it gets even more different: lacrima and its Old Latin predecessor dacrima (somewhat similar to the Proto-Indo-European).

Okay, so here’s the tear rundown as close to its chronological evolution as I can get: Dakru/draku (Proto-Indo-European), dakryma (Greek), dacrima (Old Latin), deigr (Welsh), takh/tagr (Proto Germanic), der (Irish), tar (Old Norse/Old Frisian), tagr (Gothic), zahar (Old High German), Zähre (German), teahor (Old English), tear (English).

I guess that sort of makes sense.

Next: tear, as in to rip. This has a similar evolutionary background, but this starts from a different place. First, it comes from another Old English word, but this ancestor is different: teran. Its Proto-Germanic word is teran and its Proto-Indo-European word is der. Now that is similar.

Most of der’s descendants have stayed the close to it: zehren (German), zeran (Old High German), derein (Greek), tare (Old English) and many others of similar pronunciations.

So in conclusion, these words are spelled the same but have very divergent origins. One word evolved a lot, the other, not so much, into something we now spell the same.

Again, I’d like to thank The Online Etymology Dictionary, as well as the Scientific American article Use It or Lose It: Why Languages Change Over Time, and Google Translate for translating tear into many other languages.


  1. That was educational. Thanks. I admire the dedication it took to look all that up.

  2. I took a course in university which was all about the origins of words and it was fascinating.

    As a writer, I think words are cool! Always looking for meaning behind then and also 'wow words' (words that have great sound when spoken...personally, I love the word 'tarantula').

    Always happy to meet a fellow word nerd!

    Thanks for the info!

    Julie Johnson

  3. Oddly, I enjoyed that. Thanks for sharing.
    I once made a light bulb moment about the connection between the word Carry and Car and ended up at Garage and all sort of etymological fun stuff.
    I feel smarter already. Thanks!

  4. Hello, I'm new here.
    I wish I knew all this stuff.... ah, I do now!! Thanks

  5. Weird. Some words definitely have a history.



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