Thursday, January 9, 2020

Language of Confusion: One Good Turn, Part II

Now for a bunch more words that are somehow related to turn. It’s starting to get weird.

First of all, attorney. Really. It showed up in the early fourteenth century meaning “one appointed by another to act in his place”, which, yeah, makes sense. It comes from the Old French atorné, one appointed, from the verb aturner, to decree, assign, or appoint, and another verb, atorner, to assign. Weirdly enough, there’s actually a verb form of attorney in English: attorn, which Word is underlining, but is indeed a word meaning to turn over to another. That showed up a bit earlier than attorney, in the late thirteenth century, and is also from the Old French atorner. That word is a combination of the prefix ad-, to, and the classical Latin tornare, which if you’ll remember from last week means to turn, especially on a lathe, and comes from the Proto Indo European tere-, to turn or rub. So because you turn to an attorney, well… there you go.

Next, attrition showed up in the early fifteenth century meaning a breaking, before meaning abrasion or scraping in the middle of the sixteenth century. It’s from the classical Latin attritionem, which means attrition, but also to literally rub away something. It’s actually not that different from attorney in that the prefix is ad-, to, and the rest is from terere. It just went down a slightly different linguistic path.

Also related to turn is trite. It showed up in the mid sixteenth century from the classical Latin tritus, which means ground or beaten or worn. It’s from the verb terere, which meant something like to waste, wear down, or rub, so that’s where the rub part of the word comes from. There’s also contrite, which showed up in the fourteenth century (so yeah, it’s older than trite) from the Old French contrite and classical Latin contritus, which could mean contrite, or also literally crushed or ground to pieces. The prefix con- means with or together, and the rest comes from terere, making the word “to rub together.” When you’re contrite, you rub something together until your ground to pieces. I guess.

Finally today, detriment. It showed up in the early fifteenth century meaning incapacity, then by the mid fifteenth century meant any harm or injury. It comes from the Old French detriment and classical Latin detrimentum, which could mean damage or loss or rubbing off. The verb form is detere, to wear away, a mix of the prefix de-, away, and terere, to rub.

TL;DR: All these words abandoned their literal meaning a long time ago.



  1. The words took a really weird turn. LOL!

  2. And how often do we use detriment today?

  3. starting to get weird...?
    The weird is only just starting?

  4. And here I thought the verb form of attorney was lawyering...


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