Thursday, July 25, 2013

Language of Confusion: Unit

Just a quick one today because man, is it hot. Too hot to think.

Unit is a clear example of the evolution of a word from one thing to something completely different. But it also has the rarity of almost making sense. See, when it showed up in the mid sixteenth century, it only meant a number of things regarded as an undivided group, i.e. a herd of sheep would be a unit, but the individual animals would not be. From there it evolved to a single part of a greater whole in the seventeenth century—so at that time, a member of the herd would be a unit—and then finally, it became a standard of measure in the eighteenth century. So it went from a whole, to a part, to a quantity of measure. Okay, I take back the part about it making sense.

Unit of course is related to unity, which showed up way earlier in the early fourteenth century. It comes from the Anglo-French unite and Old Frenchunite, descended from the classical Latin unitatem, sameness or agreement. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that unitatem comes from unus, the Latin word for one. For the record, yes, unite also comes from this family (duh!). It showed up in the early fifteenth century from the Latin unire, to unite, and also from unus.

There’s also a totally awesome digression I can (and will) go into: see, union is obviously related to unit, right? Well, it just so happens that in Late Latin it’s unionem, which is also a way to say, and I quote, “a single pearl or onion”. There are layers to an onion, but the whole is a unit, as it were, so unionem became a colloquialism for “a type of onion”. And that was kept in Old French, Anglo-French, and in English to the point where it became the official version of the word in both English and French (oignion).

That is entirely more awesome than it has any right to be.



  1. I'll never look at an onion the same way again. :)

  2. No way! I had no idea. That is so cool about union/onion.

  3. I love word histories!! That's an interesting evolution of unit, and I would never have guessed that onion and union were related!

  4. So all these years I've been eating French union soup?

  5. Awesome lesson. I had no idea. Languages and their changes are interesting.

  6. This is something I'm always worried about--with writing historical fantasy. I probably research a different word every day to make sure its use isn't too modern, or that it existed at all in the time period I'm writing. I could totally benefit from a life-time subscription to an etymology magazine. (Or maybe I'll just have to pop in here more often, eh?)

  7. Now all I can think about is Carol Duffy's wonderful Valentine poem, where she de-layers an onion to speak of love. More awesome than it deserves to be, too, lol!

  8. The history of words is fascinating.

    I saw a couple things on Mental Floss about words and thought of you.

  9. A type of onion? Who'd have thought?


Please validate me.