Thursday, February 23, 2017

Language of Confusion: I Am Error

Today we’re looking at error, inspired by Liz’s comment last week. For the record, no, it’s not related to extraterrestrial in any language. Really not sure why the teacher let that one go.

Err is the root word here, so we’re looking at that first. It showed up in the fourteenth century, coming from the Old French errer, which could mean a mistake or also to lose one’s way. It comes from the classical Latin errare, which had pretty much the same meaning, and even earlier it’s the Proto Indo European ers-, to wander around.

A lot of different words spawned from ers-. There’s obvious ones like error, but others that you’ll be going, like, whoa. First of all, error (which was also spelled errour up until the eighteenth century) showed up around the same time as err, the fourteenth century, where it meant a mistake. It comes from the Old French error and classical Latin errorem, which means error as well as going astray, meandering or doubt, and is related to errare. This one actually makes sense since that was kind of ers- literal meaning.

Next, erratic. It showed up in the late fourteenth century meaning wandering or moving, not taking on its modern definition until the seventeenth century. It’s from the Old French erratique (the q makes it sound cooler), wandering of vagrant, and classical Latin erraticus, erratic or wandering. And of course that’s from errare. So is errant, kind of. It’s really confusing, but apparently there were two Old French words spelled errant and one comes from the above mentioned errer while the other is actually related to the Latin ire, to go. Which is not related to the other ire that means anger. Anyway, the two errants, despite having differing origins, got fused together even though they started out completely different. People really should have been more careful about that.

There are several other words related to err in some way, as well as a few that aren’t even though it would make sense. Like errand. You’d think it would have something to do with that wander, but it doesn’t. It’s from the Old English aerende, message or errand, which is Germanic in origin. On the other hand, aberration is from err. It showed up in the sixteenth century meaning a wandering/act of straying and comes from the classical Latin aberrationem, which could mean aberration or go astray. The ab- part means away from and the rest is from errare. Finally, the word race. Yes, it’s from err. At least the kind you run is. However I think that word should probably make up its own post on another day : ).

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Wandering around became a mistake, huh? Least they all mostly connect.

  2. Interested to find out where race came in - did people used to wander off when running them?

  3. Erratic still makes sense in terms of its original meaning of wandering or moving- glacial erratics, those large rocks that are left behind after a glacier retreats.

  4. Well, you know, to race is human... Wait, no, that'snot it.
    To wander is...
    No, to be a knight!

  5. Synchronicity. My post today is about the class where the teacher let that extraterrestrial thing go. Now I know I should have volunteered aberration.

  6. interesting. I never thought about erring as wandering, but it makes sense.


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