Thursday, December 3, 2020

Language Of Confusion: Answers

This week I’m looking at words related to answer. It’s also going to be a partial redo since I looked at solve almost ten years ago and, like most of my posts from that era, it’s not very good.
Answer itself comes from the Old English andswaru as a noun and andswarian as a verb, and I can see why no one wanted to keep that D in there, it’s awkward to say. The and- is from ant-, against, the origin of anti-, and the rest is from swerian, to swear. An answer is to swear against. People think the original sense of the word was “a sworn statement rebutting a charge”, and then sometime in the fourteenth century it started to morph into a response to anything. You’d swear against a charge, so you’re answering. If you look at swerian, it comes from the Proto Germanic swerjanan, which may or may not be from the Proto Indo European swer-, to speak. That would make sense as the origin of answer, but we should always be suspicious of etymology making sense.
Solve, which I once looked at long ago, showed up in the late fourteenth century meaning to disperse, dissipate or loosen, and not meaning to solve as we’d use it until the sixteenth century. The reason for that has to do with solution, which also showed up in the late fourteenth century and meant something being solved, but only because that was how it was used in French. It comes from the Old French solucion, which meant explanation or even payment, but also division or dissolve. It’s from the classical Latin solutionem, which means solution like a solid dissolved in a liquid, from the verb solvere, to loosen (as well as to solve). It can actually be traced to the Proto Indo European words swe-, which is something like our, and leu-, to cut apart.
Next we’ll look at retort. It showed up in the mid sixteenth century from the Old French retort and classical Latin retortus. That word is from the verb retorquere, which actually means to twist. That’s a mix of re-, back, and torquere, to twist, and I’m sure you’re thinking that looks an awful lot like torque, which is because that’s where torque comes from. That torquere can actually be traced back to the Proto Indo European terkw-, to twist, so I guess people had to talk about twisting a lot. And for some reason we dropped the Q and now we have retort.
Remedy showed up in the thirteenth century, coming from the Anglo French remedie, Old French remede, and classical Latin remedium, all of which are just remedy. The re- prefix means again here, and the rest is from mederi, to find a cure. How refreshingly straightforward.
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
Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Old English-English Dictionary
Fordham University


  1. A retort would be to twist back someone's response, which makes sense.

  2. Those actually kind of make sense for once.

  3. Answer is related to swear? Funnily enough, I just saw a pattern for a knit beanie with a certain swear word knitted all over it. (It starts with F.)


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