Thursday, December 22, 2016

Language of Confusion: -Ress

It’s the last etymology post of the year! I mean, because of course I’m doing something special for next week. Um, don’t expect anything super cool. I mean special in the sense that it’s different from the usual etymology posts. Don’t go getting your hopes up.

Anyway! This is for words that end in -ress that aren’t just feminized versions of words (like mistress or actress), and also ones that don’t end in -gress because those are a whole other post by themselves.

Fortress first showed up in the early fourteenth century, coming from the Old French forteresse/forterece, which pretty much means fortress. It comes from the Medieval Latin fortalitia (which is where we got the R in fortress…somehow) and classical Latin fortis, which means strong and of course is the origin word for fort. The -ess part is French, but it actually comes from Latin as well, where it’s -itia. Even suffixes have their origins.

I think distress be one of the words that has an origin that I least expect. It showed up in the late thirteenth century as a noun and a century later as a verb. It comes from the Old French destresse, which is from the Vulgar Latin districtia, from the classical Latin districtus and its verb form distringere. And you’re probably going, wow, that districtus looks a lot like district, but there’s no way they can be related. Yes. Yes they are. That’s the origin word of district, too. Disgringere actually means to draw apart or hinder, with the dis- meaning apart and stringere, draw, the origin word for strain. Really. At least the draw apart kind of makes sense for district but distress? Apparently it’s because of Medieval Latin, where it somehow became compel or coerce. No explanation as to why it changed, though.

Caress is fairly recent, showing up in the mid seventeenth century, coming from the French caresse, which, you know, means caress. It’s from either the verb caresser or the Italian carezza, also just caress because no one’s trying to be original here. The caress words come from the classical Latin carus, expensive. That word can be traced to the Proto Indo European ka-, like or desire. The origin word for many words, including whore. You can’t make this stuff up.

Address showed up in the early fourteenth century as a verb and a century later as a noun. It originally meant guide, aim, or direct, coming from the Old French adrecier, go straight toward, set right, or direct. It’s from the Vulgar Latin addirectiare, straighten, a mix of ad-, to, and the classical Latin directus, direct. And that’s the origin word for dress, too. Apparently it means clothing because it went from “make straight” to “decorate” to “put on clothes”. I…I don’t know. My brain hurts.

Duress showed up in the early fourteenth century from the Old French duress and classical Latin duritia (hardness) and durus (hard), which is where endure comes from. The -ess part comes from the same place as the -ess in fortress. Wow, one without a crazy backstory. Whew.

Tl;dr: -ress words are weird. Like even for words weird.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


  1. Caress implies tenderness so I'd never place it in the same category as whore.

  2. I don't know. They don't seem weirder than normal to me.

  3. I can see how caress and whore could be considered similar. Not in sound, of course.

  4. I guess I can see how caress and whore could be related….

  5. Distress seems oddly fitting for this time of year.

  6. Address is one of those two-syllable words where the stress changes, depending on whether it is a verb or noun.
    Stress is on the last syllable if it’s a verb, on the first syllable if it’s a noun.
    You can probably think of other examples.


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