Thursday, November 19, 2020

Language of Confusion: Tear

Another redo this week. I am totally out of original ideas. This one is almost exactly ten years old, so maybe it could use another looking at.
Tear has two different meanings, to rip something apart and what happens when you cry. The crying one showed up as a verb in the early fifteenth century and a noun sometime before that, coming from the Old English tear, which is just tear, so nothing shocking here. It’s from the Proto Germanic tahr-/tagr-, and yes, that’s a g in there. That can be traced to the Proto Indo European dakru-, which means… I don’t know. Weirdly, the etymology dictionary doesn’t say. Well, when a language is more than six thousand years old, you’re bound to lose a few definitions.
The other tear showed up as a noun in the mid seventeenth century and a verb before that, coming from the Old English teran, to rip apart. It’s from the Proto Germanic teran, from the Proto Indo European root der-, to split, flay, or peel. Unlike dakru-, der- shows up in a lot more places. Derm—as in skin—is actually from the same place, and I can only assume it’s because skin peels. Kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?
Tart is actually also from der-. But not the pastry, which is actually from the PIE root terkw-, to twist. Or the derogatory word for a woman, which is from the pastry (well, maybe). No, I mean tart as in how something might taste. Which is not related to the other definitions at all. That tart showed up in the mid sixteenth century, and one theory is it’s from the Old English teart, painful, sharp, or severe, and I can see tart coming from that. Anyway, teart is from the Germanic ter-t-, which is from der-, and no, I don’t get how it went from peel to sharp. Who knows? Maybe it’s not even related at all.
But there is another word that’s most definitely from sharp and I’m way too amused to share it with you: turd. Yes, that turd. It comes from the Old English tord, from the Proto Germanic turdam. That word is from the past participle of der-, drtom, and it’s thought that because turds are split off from people (XD at that image), and split is one of the definitions of der-, we have turd.
Yes, this was an appropriate note to leave off on before Thanksgiving break. I think we can all agree it was clearly a mistake not to go into more depth on tear the first time.
Online Etymology Dictionary
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Old English-English Dictionary


  1. Yes, thank you for placing that in our brains right before Thanksgiving!

  2. That image will be with me all day now. Thanks!

  3. Last week I had a word I thought you might do, but now I can't remember what it was.


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