Thursday, January 9, 2014

Language of Confusion: Spect-tator

First etymology post of the year! Whoo! And it’s going to be a long one!

This time, I decided to look spectacle and all related words (there are a lot!). It showed up in the mid fourteenth century meaning a specially prepared display. It comes from the Old French spectacle and classical Latin spectaculum, both with roughly the same meaning we know it as. Words with -spect in them generally have something to do with watching because the suffix, like spectaculum, comes from the Latin spectare/specere, to look or watch. It can be traced even further back to the Proto Indo European spek, to observe.

Now for the suffixed words…

Showed up in the early seventeenth century (making it one of the later ones) from the classical Latin inspectus/inspicere, to look into. The prefix in- means into, and with specere meaning look, it’s kind of easy to see how the word works.

Showed up in the late fourteenth century as an astrological term, believe it or not, referring to the positions of the other planets as they look from Earth. It comes from the classical Latin aspectus/aspicere, to look at. The a- prefix is the at part, of course.

This one might seem a little weird since respect doesn’t really require looking. At least, not these days, as originally it meant regard or a relationship. It showed up as a noun in the late fourteenth century and a verb in the mid sixteenth century. The noun is from the Old French respect and classical Latin respectus/respicere, which means to look back at (makes sense since the re- prefix means back or again), but unlike the noun, the verb respect comes from Middle French. The word there is respecter, to look back, and it comes from the Latin respectere, another word that comes from respicere. The only difference is that respectere is what’s known as a frequentative, which is a special verb that indicates an action is ongoing or repetitive. Why they needed a different form of the verb to make a word that was basically the same, I have no idea.

It may not have an s, but it is a -spect word. Expect showed up in the mid sixteenth century meaning, get this, to wait to act. It came from the classical Latin expectare/exspectare (the s does seem redundant after the x), which meant to wait or look out for. The ex- prefix normally means out or from, but in this case it means completely, which is a legitimate meaning, I swear. I guess the idea of completely looking for something can mean that you’re waiting for it to show up. Maybe.

First showed up as an adjective in the early fourteenth century, a verb in the mid fifteenth century, and a noun in the late sixteenth century. It comes from the Old French suspect (shocker) and classical Latin suspectus/suspicere. Suspectus has a similar meaning to what we know it as, but the word it comes from, suspicere, means to look up, both in the literal and figurative (“to look up to” someone) meanings of the word. Now, that definition makes sense since the su- comes from sub-, which means beneath, and if you’re looking up at someone, you’re beneath them. But as for the mistrust/suspicion definition, apparently the only reason for that is because it somehow implies to secretly look at because you don’t trust them. Seriously, that’s the reasoning.

First showed up in the early seventeenth century as a regard or reference to something. It came from the classical Latin retrospectum/retrospicere, to look back. It’s a combination of -spect (look) and retro- (back), which itself is a combination of re- and intro-. And that’s your cool bit of knowledge for the day.

Showed up in the late seventeenth century (introspection actually came a century earlier) from the classical Latin introspectus/introspicere, to look into. Spect- is look, as you should know by now, and intro is inside. Not a big stretch here.

Showed up in the early fifteenth century meaning looking off into the distance, I’m not even kidding. It comes from the classical Latin prosepectus/prospicere, where it means to look far away or to look forward. Pro- brings the forward and the spect- brings the look, making a word that was once literal and now is just figurative.

TL;DR: -Spect words were once literal. Not so much these days.

University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language


  1. Aspect is from astrology? Didn't know that.

  2. Some of those don't even mean the same.

    And I can't see the word respect without thinking of the movie Airplane.

  3. I know aspect from astrology. (Probably shouldn't be admitting to that...)

  4. I think -spect is coming up soon in my students' word study curriculum. I should show them this post!

  5. Suspect, somehow, really speaks to me!


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