Thursday, July 23, 2020

Language of Confusion: Terms

Now, I already did terminate a while back, but I never looked at the other words it’s related to, so it’s time to do that. For a refresher: terminate showed up in the late fifteenth century. It’s from the classical Latin terminatus, terminating, and terminare, to terminate. That’s pretty much all that’s known about it.

Term itself showed up earlier, in the thirteenth century, from the Old French terme and classical Latin terminus, which means border. Whether it’s used for school or elected office, a term has a fixed ending—a border, if you will. Now, term is also used to mean a word/phrase usage. That actually started in the fourteenth century, and unsurprisingly it has a weird reason why. Okay, first of all, Medieval Latin used terminus as a translation for the Greek word horos, which was a word for boundary used in math and logic. Somehow that morphed “in terms of” into meaning “particular phraseology”. I guess a phrase is limited by its meaning? Also in that vein, the word terminal. It showed up in the mid fifteenth century, again just referring to the end of something. Then in 1888, it started to mean the end point of a railway line, which is why it’s still used in different methods of travel. Then 1954 gave us computer terminal. No real reason why, but maybe because it was a stopping point like a train terminal. But that’s just a guess on my part.

Exterminate… well, okay, it’s kind of a weird story, big shocker. It showed up in the mid sixteenth century along with extermination. Exterminator on the other hand showed up in the fifteenth century. Where it meant “an angel who expels people from a country”. Yeah. The job exterminator didn’t actually show up until 1848. In any case, all the words can be traced to the classical Latin exterminare, which means exterminate, but also to banish or expel—Late Latin was the one to make the word lean towards destroy. Exterminare is a mix of the prefix ex-, out of, and termine, boundary. To exterminate is to kick someone out of a boundary.

Determine showed up in the latefourteenth century as determinen, from the Old French determiner and classical Latin determinare, to determine or set limits to (determining something sets limits to it, I suppose). The de- means off, and the rest of course is limit/end/boundary. To determine is to boundary off something.

Finally, interminable. It showed up in the late fourteenth century from the Old French interminable and Late Latin interminabilis, endless. It’s a mix of the prefix in-, meaning not here, the suffix -able, and of course term. Interminable is literally not-boundary-able. And unlike most of these words, there are no weird transfers of meanings.



  1. I can see how "in terms of" became "as defined". A bit of a jump, but not a huge one.

  2. The boundary of life!
    I mean, I know that's how daleks think of it.

  3. So many words linked to 'term'. Interesting!


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