Thursday, January 16, 2020

Language of Confusion: One Good Turn, Part III

Just a couple more weeks of this. Then I have to start coming up with etymology ideas again. Hm… could be a problem…

Anyway! Back to words that are related to turn—or rather, descended from the Proto Indo European word for turn, tere-, which is actually to turn or to rub, because words.

The first word we’re looking at this week is contour, which we probably should have looked at when we did tour, but whatever, might as well do it now. It first showed up in the mid seventeenth century as a term in painting and sculpture, where it meant the outline of a figure. Although amusingly enough, in the fifteenth century, contour referred to a quilt or bedspread falling over the sides of a mattress, and it wasn’t until the mid eighteenth century that it referred to a contour on a map. Contour itself comes from the French word contour, which is from the Italian contornare, to border, which itself is from the Medieval Latin contornare (yeah, same spelling), to go around. It’s a mix of the prefix com-, probably just an intensive here, and tornare, to turn on a lathe. And that’s from tere-. So a contour is… just really turning something?

Next today, we’re looking at diatribe, which is in no way related to tribe so don’t bother asking. It showed up as an English word in the mid seventeenth century, although people were using the Latin version of the word from the late sixteenth century. It’s original meaning was a continued discourse or critical dissertation, so I’m guessing it was used in a college setting, which would be why it spent several decades only being used in Latin. It’s related to the French diatribe, which is just diatribe, and from the Latin diatriba, a lecture. Like many Latin words, it was taken from Greek, which meant things like employment or study, or discourse, or a literal wasting away of time. The dia- means away, and tribein, which means scrub, erode, or wear—you know, like you’d do by rubbing. And that’s why it’s from tere-. Rubbing wears something away. Because of that, we have diatribe.

Also not related to tribe is tribulation. It showed up in the thirteenth century from the Old French tribulacion and the Church Latin tribulationem, distress or affliction. Of course it would be a church word. The verb of it is tribulare, to oppress or afflict, which was taken from the classical Latin version of the word, which literally meant to press. It’s from the verb terere, to rub or erode or waste, and of course that’s just tere- with an extra -re on it.

Finally today: trauma. Yeah, I was surprised to hear that it’s related, too. It showed up in the late seventeenth century meaning a physical wound. It was taken from the Latin trauma, which was taken from the Greek trauma, a wound or defeat. That’s actually from the Proto Indo European word trau-, which is just another form of tere-.You might be wondering how rubbing and turning relates to wounds, well, it’s thought to be in a sense of twisting and piercing. Doing that to someone would definitely make a wound.



  1. It's so interesting when words are related when they sound nothing alike.

  2. I'm sure you'll come up with more words. You can't have exhausted all of the words yet.

  3. I made up a word this morning, was immediately told "you can't just make up words," replied that I can, but, now, have forgotten the word.


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