Thursday, February 7, 2013

Language of Confusion: Versed

This is another huge one. There are so many verse words it would just be etymology overload to have them all in one week. See, verse is one of those words that shows up a lot, in words from universe to anniversary, and about everything in between.

Verse firstshowed up in 1050as basically the same thing we know it as (it was specifically a line of psalms and canticles). It was taken from the Anglo/Old Frenchvers, and classical Latinversus, which I’m guessing is familiar to you. Versus showed up in English much later than verse, in thefifteenth centuryas part of the legalese of the time. It obviously also came from the Latin versus, meaning against, and stemming from the word vertere, to turn, and thought to come from the Proto Indo Europeanwert, turn or wind. The reason verse turned into a line of poetry is because vertere was taken metaphorically, turning from one line to the next like a plow would. Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Also related to verse are version, versed and versify. Version is versionem in Medieval Latin, where it meant “a turning”, a metaphorical sense of the word. Versed kept a more literal meaning--to become “versed” in a subject, one turns it over several times. Versify (put something into verse) sticks with the lyrical, coming from the similar versifier in Old French and versificare in Latin, where it’s a combination of versus and facere, to make (sooo…make a verse).

And to think, we’re only just getting started. Here are some of the “verse” words I’ve found:
Universe: comes from the Old French univers and classical Latin universum, a noun of universus, which means something like “all as one”. It’s a combination of unus (one) and our friend versus/vertere. The reason they chose versus is because they were translating the Greek concept of “universe” into their own language. The word university? Also from universus.

Transverse: means extending across a direction or lying crosswise. It showed up in the early fifteenth century, coming from the Latin transversus and transvertere with roughly the same meaning. One of the meanings of the trans- prefix is across, so it’s easy to see how “turn across” could mean transverse.

Traverse: this one means to pass through. The reason it sounds so much like transverse is because it basically comes from the same word. In Vulgar Latin, it’s traversare, and it was taken by Old French to mean cross or thwart before English took the spelling for a more literal definition.

Diverse: showed up in the fourteenth century, although it appeared a century earlier as divers. It comes from the Old French divers, where it could different or something like treacherous, and it is also the origin for divert. In classical Latin the word is diversus, turned different ways, with the dis- prefixmeaning apart. There is also diversion, which first showed up in English as the act of diverting something, and then transformed into the more "fun" definition we have today.

Reverse: showed up in the fourteenth century from the Old French revers and Latin reversus/revertere. Revert also comes from this line, although like trans/traverse it comes from a Vulgar Latin word first. With the re- prefix meaning back, it’s easy to see where the word that literally means "turn back" came from.

Converse: both meanings, to talk with and the opposite of, come from the same words despite the difference in their definitions. The first comes from the Latin conversari, which like the second comes from conversus/convertere. Converse actually wasn’t used for talk as much until the 1570s. Before then it simply meant being/dealing with others, which fit its Latin definition of “a turn about with”. The other converse is version of the word convert. Like above words, it comes from Old French (convertir) and Vulgar Latin (convertire), which means it ultimately comes from the classical word as well. The prefix means with, so it literally means turn with, which somewhat fits the religious conversion definition it originally showed up with.

Whew, that’s a lot of verse words, and there’s still a bunch more. But you need this information so tune in next week for the electrifying conclusion.



  1. So much more intricate of a word than I realized! Great post. I love these. :)

  2. I knew that university came from universe, but I thought universe once meant "one song". Which is an interesting way of looking at the universe...

  3. Twitterverse, Blogoverse, Blogoversary just to name a few to see how words evolve, even in modern times. Thanks Jeanne, another fun lesson :)

  4. When I think of traversing, it's as a climbing term, traversing a rock face.


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