Thursday, December 5, 2013

Language of Confusion: -guish

As what often happens to me because I’m me, I got to wondering about a word. In this case it was distinguish, another one of those words that makes no sense when you separate the prefix from the rest of the word. So let’s look into its origins and maybe I’ll get a hundred and thirty page views like when I did Sunday, seriously I’m not even joking, it was a hundred and thirty.

Distinguish showed up in the middle of the sixteenth century, coming from the Middle French distinguiss and classical Latin distinguere. It meant to separate, much like we use it for, but also “to separate by pricking”. See, that stinguere has a variety of meanings in Latin, including prick, but also quench, as in obliterate…or extinguish.

Extinguish is a bit older than distinguish, having showed up in the early sixteenth century. In Latin the word is (of course) extinguere/exstinguere, with pretty much the same meaning we know it as. The ex- means out and the stinguere means obliterate, making it “to put out”.

There are also other words that end in -guish, but I haven’t been able to confirm that they’re related. Anguish and languish just seem to be words combined with -guish, the first being anger and the second being lax. You have to remember that distinguish and extinguish both have the s sound (the x takes care of it for the latter), while as other words do not. It’s the fault of the suffix -ish, which happens to be quite popular.

TL;DR: Distinguish and extinguish are related, but not to any other word that ends in -guish, because Latin is almost as crazy a language as English.

Hey, another -ish word.



  1. Anguish is the first thing that came to mind when I saw that blog title...

  2. 130 page views on Sunday? Were you having a sale you didn't tell us about?

  3. Oh man...I'm getting all apprehensive now. I dissected and massive amounts of words/phrases while writing for the 1760's, until I got pretty comfortable with the language. You just reminded me my next book takes place in Jeffery Chaucer's era, and I have a WHOLE new set of linguistics to figure out. Time to build a time-period reading list...

  4. congrats on your 130 views. Impressive.
    I do love reading about the history of words.


Please validate me.