Thursday, October 11, 2012

Language of Confusion: Vice

The election is coming up. I really hope that didn’t subconsciously influence my picking this word. If it did, well, that’s it for me. I’m signing out for good.

Anyway, there are a few varieties of vice. There’s the synonym for sin, the prefix you see in front of president, as well as vise, the tool used for holding something. It doesn’t help that that last one can also be spelled vice. And different though they may be, each has surprising reach in the English language.

Sin vice and vise both showed up in the fourteenth century, the former from the Old French vice and the latter from the Old Frenchvis (or viz). Also, vise wasn’t the name for the tool until two centuries later. In Old French it was just a word for screw and came from a Latin word vitis, which means a vine and comes from the word viere—to bind or twist. Makes sense. And then we have vice, which comes from the classical Latinvitium, which basically means a physical/moral defect (and is the Latin primogenitor of vicious as well). Two different origins with nothing but similar spelling in common.

The prefix vice-, on the other hand, showed up in the fifteenth century. Officially it means “in place of”, coming from the classical Latin vice of the same meaning. Vice is derived from vicis, a turn as in succession rather than a physical twist like the above vitis. Vicis can be traced all the way back to the Proto Indo Europeanweik and weig—bend or wind. Although not related to the other vice, vice- is related to vicarious, another descendent of vicis, which in English means “in place of” and showed up in the 1630s.

Now, there are plenty of other words that sound like they’re related to vise/vice, including vision, adviseand advice, yet they aren’t related at all. The latter two first formed in Old French which, like vision, comes from the classical Latin visionem, which can be traced all the way back to the Proto Indo European weid. Do you want to know what is related? Washer. Not the machine you put clothes in or a person who scrubs dishes, but the ring made to tighten a joint to prevent leaks. That washer is derived from vis, the parent of vice- and vicarious.

TL;DR: None of the words you’d think are related actually are. Because etymology. Also, awesome points to anyone else who uses primogenitor in a sentence.



  1. Okay, so Vice- actually fits the meaning of its core word, despite the other variation applying to misdeeds and libations...

    That should help Crazy Joe Biden sleep at night.


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