Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Language of Confusion: No, I Haven’t Given Up On It Yet

One of the interesting things about words is that with different emphasis on a syllable, a word can mean something different. Take refuse. Am I talking about garbage or saying no? If I say re-fuse, I’m saying no, I absolutely will not. If I say re-fuse (actually closer to ref-fuse), then I’m saying the trash needs to be taken out.

That’s not the only syllable driven word. There is perfect (just right) and perfect (make flawless) and produce (fruit and vegetables) and produce (the act of production). Also, as I discussed before, the word entrance can mean point of entry or to hypnotize depending on how much emphasis you give the first syllable. And let’s not forget desert (abandon) and des-ert, a big, empty place : )

One thing I’ve learned from etymology: pronunciation is almost always an important part of the meaning of the word. Of course, the other thing I’ve learned is there is no hard and fast rule to any form language (for example, the meaning doesn’t change whether you pronounce neither neether or nyether). It’s probably one of the things that makes foreign languages so hard to learn. There are so many subtleties that we grow up with, things that are ingrained in our minds you can’t learn from learning the different verb tenses in Spanish class.

And, for all you word nerds (or myself), the etymology of refuse. To refuse comes from Old French, 12th century word refuser, which comes from Latin (the Vulgar variety spoken every day, as opposed to Literary Latin) word refusare, a verb-izing of refundere, the Latin word for “give back” or “pour back.” Not surprisingly, refundere is also the route word for refund. It is a combination of re (back) and fundere (to pour). You can trace fundere back to Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of many languages, where it also means pour. So if you refuse a request, you are literally pouring it back to the asker. I just find that neat.

Refuse, as in garbage, has a slightly different etymology. In genealogical terms, you could say they’re something like second cousins. It also comes from Old French, the word refus, a descendant of refuser, the same word the other refuse comes from, meaning the rest of its line is exactly the same. The first refuse also came about three centuries earlier. Garbage refuse came in the late fourteenth century as outcast and then a little later became associated with garbage, that which is discarded. This refuse is what is refused, thrown away…poured back. It’s just used up first.

As always, thanks to the Online Etymology dictionary. And thanks to, too.


  1. It's like peeps couldn't think up a new word and had to use old ones with a different accent. WTH??? lol

  2. Your blog is so interesting. I have never looked at words that way. That's why I find this blog so fascinating.
    Hope you had a good Thanksgiving.
    Smiles to you.


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