Thursday, April 16, 2020

Language Of Confusion: Take Your Seats, Part V

Whoo, this one is still going. Look, there are a lot of words that come from the Proto Indo European sed-, to sit. Some of them even have to do with sitting! Not so much this week, though.

You know what’s from sed-? Séance. Not making that up. It showed up in 1789 meaning a sitting or session, (not meaning the spiritualist thing until 1845) from the French séance, which means sitting or meeting. The verb form is seoir, to sit, from the classical Latin sedere, which as I’ve mentioned every week means to sit, and is from sed-. So it means session, and spiritualists decided to use it probably because French was fancy.

Next, siege, which makes sense since I mentioned last week how sess- are related siege. Now we can look at the word itself. It showed up in the early thirteenth century just meaning a seat. Apparently because an attacking army would be “sitting down” in front of a fortress, the word came to be used in a militaristic sense, which then morphed it to the definition we use for it. Anyway, it’s from the Old French sege, seat or throne, from the Vulgar Latin sedicum, seat. And that one’s from sedere, so there’s that.

That one kind of made sense, right? Well, how about size? Yes, really. It showed up in the fourteenth century meaning an ordinance to fix the amount of a payment or tax. Seriously. See, in from the Old French sise, and that word is actually short for assise, session, assessment, regulation, or manner. That’s from the verb asseoir (looks like seoir, doesn’t it?), which means to cause to sit. You know how you size something up? That’s what it means. In English, it became the amount/volume of something, and in the late sixteenth century meant the dimensions of something for sale, then shortly after that it became to make something a certain size or classify by size. But asseoir is from the classical Latin assidere/adsidere, to sit beside, which I actually mentioned last week as being the origin of assess. The ad- means to, and the rest is from sedere, and the word means “to sit next to”. Yeah. None of this makes sense.

And now soil, because this has to keep getting weirder. Soil showed up in the early thirteenth century, first as a verb meaning to pollute with sin and then later as a noun meaning land. The verb is from the Old French soillier, to splatter with mud, from souil, a pigsty or wallow. That’s from Latin, either the word solium, seat or bath tub, or from suculus, pig. The noun has a slightly different origin, coming from the Anglo French soil, piece of ground, from the Old French words sol, ground or soil, and soeul/sueil, area or place. It’s the latter word that’s from solium, which means it’s also from sed-, meaning soil has four possible origin words, two of which aren’t related. But maybe they are!

Now for something slightly different. Soot doesn’t have any French of Latin in it at all, but it’s still from sed-! It comes from the Old English sot, soot, from the Proto Germanic sotam, also soot, basically meaning something that settles down, which I guess soot does. That word is from the Proto Indo European sodo-, which is a suffix form of sed-. So because soot settles, it’s soot. I think that might be the only sed- word that’s Germanic in origin. Isn’t that weird?

Finally today is see. But not see like you looking at stuff. There’s another one. Have you ever heard of something, like the Vatican, referred to as a “Holy see”? That version of see is unique in origin. It showed up in the fourteenth century meaning the throne of a bishop, archbishop, or pope. It’s from the Old French sie, seat or throne, from the classical Latin sedem, seat, which of course is from sedere and sed-. It being a homonym for see is just one big coincidence.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Size it up and sit it down. Yeah, that one's out there.

  2. The evolution of 'soil' I found interesting; first as a verb to pollute and then as a noun, land.

  3. "...spiritualists decided to use it probably because French was fancy." I think that's why French words are used in many things.

  4. All right, I like the idea of sitting around a fortress to siege it.


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