Thursday, September 24, 2020

Language Of Confusion: -Serts

A follow up of last week (which of course was just a redo). I kind of looked at some of these words way back in 2013, where I looked at words ending in -sort, and it turns out that sort and consort are from the same place as words ending in -sert. So hey! That’s like half of this post already done for me!

Quick recap: sort showed up in the mid fourteenth century as a verb and late fourteenth century as a noun, from the Old French sortir (ver) and sorte (noun). Both of those are from the classical Latin sors, lot, from the Proto Indo European ser-, to line up. And that ser- is where all these -sert words come from.
Assert showed up in the seventeenth century, from the classical Latin assertus and its verb form asserere, to assert. It’s a mix of the prefix ad-, to, and serere, to join together or to put in a row, and that’s from -ser. To assert is… to put in a row? Insert makes a bit more sense. It showed up in the sixteenth century, from the Latin insertus and its verb form inserere, which meant to plant, and since the in- prefix is from en and literally means in, that makes this one “to plant in”. I assume that was once a bit more literal than it is now.
Also related is dissertation—I assume anyone with a PhD is now having horrible flashbacks. It showed up in the early seventeenth century meaning discussion or debate, and in the middle of the century started specifically referring to research projects for doctoral degrees. It’s from the Late Latin dissertationem, from the classical Latin verb dissertare, to be discussing, and disserere, to discuss. The dis- means apart and with serere, that makes it to join together apart or put in rows apart. Sure. Well, in a metaphorical sense, words are being “joined together”. Not really sure where the apart figures in, though.
It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that series is related. It showed up in the early seventeenth century meaning… a set of things arranged in a line. Then in the eighteenth century it meant a set of printed works published consecutively, then in 1862 it was a set of baseball games on consecutive games, and in 1949, a set of radio/television programs with the same characters and themes. So that’s how that evolved. It comes from the classical Latin series, which (shocker) means series—but also a row, chain, or sequence. Nothing too outlandish here.
Now for the final ser- word, and I can almost guarantee you aren’t expecting this one: sorcery. Really! And it’s the oldest of these words, having shown up in the fourteenth century. It’s from the Old French sorcerie, from sorcier, sorcerer, and that’s from the Medieval Latin sortiarius, a sorcerer or fortuneteller. And that happens to be from sors, which again, means lot—as in one’s lot (or fate) in life. Somehow, that gave us sorcery.
Online Etymology Dictionary
Google Translate
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
Dictionary of Medieval Latin
Orbis Latinus


  1. What sorcery is this?!
    Just kidding.
    Series certainly makes sense.

  2. I can see sorcery being the older word. It was more magic back in the day (or fear of magic).

  3. Replies
    1. I don't know if you subscribe to your comments or not, but I did reply to your comment on my blog today with something substantial rather than the short unimportant responses I generally leave for comments on my photos.

  4. Dissertation is an obscenity, said from experience.


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