Thursday, October 6, 2016

Language of Confusion: Grave Situations, Part I

Well, it’s hard to make etymology scary. The best I can do is etymologize scary things. That’s almost like being scary, right?

Maybe not. Anyway, this week: disposing of the body.

Grave had more than one definition of course. You’d think they’d all be related, but they’re not. You know the serious grave? Yeah. Not related to a dead body grave. Unlike engraved. I’m not kidding. Dead body grave comes from the Old English graef, grave, which is from the Proto Germanic graban and Proto Indo European grebh, dig or scrape. Apparently because you scrape dirt out of the ground for a grave and also scrape when you engrave. Sure. The serious grave on the other hand comes from the Middle French grave and classical Latin gravis, serious, and before that the Proto Indo European gwere-, heavy. Being the same as grave is just a coincidence.

Maybe this one will make sense. Bury comes from the Old English byrgan, which means bury or hide. You might be wondering how it got from byrgan to bury—it’s because Y used to have the oo sound. While we don’t say “boory” (although that’s a good spelling for this month), it’s a lot easier to see how it got from that to bury. As for the g…G has always been stupid. Don’t get me started on G. Anyway, before it was byrgan, it was just the Proto Indo European bhergh-, hide or protect. Well, burying something is hiding it, I guess I can declare this one not-stupid. Mostly.

Cremation showed up in the 1620s, while cremate didn’t appear until 1874—it’s practically a baby. It came from the classical Latin cremationem, which is obviously cremation, and cremare, to burn. It can be traced even further back to the Proto Indo European krem-/ker-, heat or fire. It’s actually the origin word for Carbon, by the way.

I guess that’s it for this week. Don’t worry. More grave related stuff next week!

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. This made me think of the colloquial french word 'cramer' which means to burn. It's what often happens when I try that's scary. ;)
    Love your theme btw.

  2. Grave from gravis makes sense although ironic the two graves aren't related. And we wonder why kids have a hard time grasping the English language.

  3. The root words for bury sound like things that zombies would mumble.

  4. G's giving me trouble today, too. (The school computer I'm on is missing it's G key.)

    I think burying a body is protecting it. From the elements if nothing else.

  5. Who says that etymology isn't scary all by itself?

  6. How did we get carbon from cremation then?

  7. It's kind of miracle that anyone ever learns to speak English, isn't it?


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