Thursday, September 13, 2018

Language of Confusion: -Text, Part I

Now, I did the word text over five years ago when I did the word test, because it turns out, yeah, they have the same origin. But I neglected to go over the prefixed versions of the word, and now is as good a time as any.

To refresh your memories, text showed up in the late fourteenth century from the Old French texte and Old North French tixte, which mean text. Before that, it was the Medieval Latin textus, which could mean the Scriptures or just plain text, but meant written account in Late Latin. The classical Latin version of the word is textus, which meant “texture of a work” and literally meant “thing woven”. It’s from the verb texere, to weave (and the origin of test), which is traced back to the Proto Indo European root teks-, to weave, fabricate, or make.

Context showed up in the early fifteenth century meaning a composition, not, well, context. The classical Latin version is contexus, context, from contexere, to weave. The con- prefix means with or together, so this word is “to weave together”. Funny how we never use it to just mean a composition anymore. It went from being basically another word for text to the literal meaning of its prefix and suffix.

Pretext showed up in the early sixteenth century from the French prétexte and classical Latin praetextum, which meant pretext or excuse. The prae- is from pre-, in front and with texere, it’s to weave or fabricate in front of. Which is a good explanation for what an excuse is.

Subtext is much more recent, having only shown up in 1950 (!) in reference to acting. Sub- means under, because the times it was used before becoming official in 1950 was to mean “text appearing below other text on a page”. Subtext was once literally under-text. Hypertext is common these days and also very recent, although since it first appeared in 1969, it might be a bit older than you think since it predates the internet. Hyper- is the opposite of sub-, meaning over or above, so hypertext is text over the other text. Just like all these web links I’m giving you.

Texture first showed up in the early fifteenth century, but back then it meant a network or structure, from the Middle French texture and classical Latin textura. Textura has a few different meanings, including texture, workmanship, and a web. It didn’t actually start to mean the texture of something in English until centuries later, if you can believe that. The word textile didn’t show up until the early sixteenth century, although at least it didn’t have some wildly different meanings compared to today. It’s from the classical Latin textilis, woven or textile, which… yeah. That’s what a textile is.

TL;DR: Oh, what a tangled web we weave.



  1. Well done. Now, go weave yourself a basket.

  2. Someone wove something in my head, so I got nothing.

  3. The way "text" worked along through the centuries. It is amazing.

  4. I wonder if subtext was part of that acting studio that started around then. Method acting happened around that time as well.

  5. In acting, subtext is about the words that aren't on the page, the words that are left unsaid, but are implied by the words on the page. When you can find that meaning, then your character will have the necessary depth to convey everything the playwright intended.


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