Thursday, March 18, 2021

Language Of Confusion: Tracts, Part II

We’re back looking at tract, and all the words related to it. As I said last week, tract is from the Proto Indo European tragh-, which means to draw or drag something along. This week we’ll be looking at a bunch of different words with -tract as a suffix.
First, attract showed up in the early fifteenth century, meaning basically what it does today—also in a medical sense, it was used to mean how the body absorbed (as in, drawing out) nutrients. Okay, sure. Attract comes from the classical Latin attractus, attraction, from the verb attrahere, to attract. Not exactly surprising. The prefix of the word is from ad, to, while the rest is from trahere, which, as I mentioned last week when discussing tract, means to pull. To attract literally means to draw/pull to. Isn’t it nice when the words make sense?
Contract showed up in the early fourteenth century as a noun meaning an agreement, then later in the century, it was a verb meaning to shrink. How are those totally different meanings from the same word? Well, let’s see. The verb comes from the Old French contracter and classical Latin contractus, which again, means to shrink. The noun comes from the Old French contract and classical Latin… contractus. See, metaphorically, to make an agreement was to draw something together. And that’s what the contractus literally means. The con- means together while the rest is from trahere. A contract draws things together. So does shrinking.
Distract showed up in the late fourteenth century, coming from the classical Latin distractus, which actually means torn or severed. Its verb form, distrahere, means to distract or draw in different directions: the dis- means away and trahere means to draw. Figuratively, to distract someone is to draw them away from something.
Now for abstract. It showed up in the late fourteenth century as a term meaning nouns that don’t name concrete things, not meaning an abridgment until the mid fifteenth century, and not an art term until 1914. Though it was used in music since the nineteenth century to mean music without lyrics. It’s from the classical Latin abstractus, withdrawn, and its verb form abstrahere, draw away. Ab- is another prefix that means away, because you can’t have just one, and trahere, to draw. Abstract also means to draw away from, and for some reason it means a lot of other crazy stuff, too.
Finally today, we’ll look at detract. It showed up in the early fifteenth century from the classical Latin detractus, withdrawal or drawing away, and its verb form detrahere. The de- means down here, and with trahere, to detract is to pull down. That… actually makes a ton of sense.
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


  1. An instrumental is an abstract. Good to know.

  2. I liked the evolution of the word 'contract'. Interesting!

  3. Abstract is weird.

    Especially in the artistic sense.

  4. Tract certainly got around, didn't it?


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