Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Language of Confusion: Tempt-ation

Tempt, attempt, contempt

An appropriate subject as in a few days, I will be sorely tempted to eat my weight in chocolate. Because, you know. Christmas.

The word tempt showed up in English in the early thirteenth century from the Old French tempter, which came the century before from the Latin temptare. Like many word-originators, temptare is not a direct translation. It means “to feel, to test, or to attempt to influence.” The latter two definitions certainly sound appropriate (what is temptation but a test of will?) and it’s probably why the Old French started using it. On a small side note, taunt comes from the same etymological parent as tempt.

What I find interesting is how different attempt is from tempt. An attempt is a try while to tempt is to test/influence. Attempt showed up in English about a century after tempt, not surprisingly from the Old French attempter. It is mostly a direct translation. The classical Latin word it comes from is attemptare, to try, although that itself is quite different from temptare. I suppose you can thank the prefix for that. At- comes from ad-, which means to, towards, in regard to. It makes temptare’s “to try” into “to try to” do something.

The third of the tempt trio is contempt, which also emerged in the late fourteenth century. Despite the similarity, its lineage is different, coming from the classical Latin contemptus, the past participle of “to scorn.” The con- is added as an intensifier, making it “to really scorn.” You have to chalk this one up to coincidence due to Latin speakers liking to add t’s to participles.

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