Thursday, March 25, 2021

Language Of Confusion: Tracts, Part III

Yay, back to this. Aren’t you having fun? This week, we’re looking at more words that end in tract, which comes from Proto Indo European tragh-, to draw or drag something along. There are quite a few of them.
Extract showed up as a verb in the late fifteenth century, while extraction actually showed up earlier, in the early fifteenth century. As a noun, extract showed up in the middle of the century, but it didn’t mean what we know it as. Back then, it meant a summary of something written, kind of like we use abstract for today. It didn’t mean something extracted until the late fifteenth century. Funny, huh? Anyway, extract comes from the classical Latin extractus, drawn out, from the verb extrahere, to draw/pull out. Ex- means out, obviously, and trahere is draw/pull. Isn’t it nice when the words make sense?
Retract showed up in the early fifteenth century (retraction was a bit earlier, in the late fourteenth century), coming from the Old French retracter and classical Latin retractus, drawn back. Its verb form is retractare, to withdraw or draw back, with the re- meaning back and the tractere coming from trahere, to draw. To draw back. How sensible!
Subtract showed up in the early sixteenth century, though much like the other words we’ve looked at today, subtraction showed up before that, a whole century earlier in fact. Subtract comes from the classical Latin subtractus, withdrawn, and its verb form subtrahere, to withhold or take away. Sub- means from under, which is kind of weird. Subtraction is to pull something from under, I guess.
Protract is just like the other words here. It showed up in the early sixteenth century, while protraction came almost a century earlier, and then protractor, the tool, didn’t come until the seventeenth century and no, I don't know why a tool for measuring angles is called that, it just is. It’s from the classical Latin protractus, which means drawn along, from the verb protrahere, protract. Pro- means forward, so this word is to draw forward, which morphed protract into prolonging. But protract isn’t the only word given to us by that. Ever wonder where portray comes from? Yep. Here. It showed up way earlier than any of these words, in the mid thirteenth century, coming from the Anglo French purtraire and Old French portraire, to draw, paint, or portray. That por- used to be pro-, and the traire comes from trahere. I have no idea how you get portray from that, but there you go.


  1. Though there are quite a few words that end in 'tract', I never thought of them all together and linked in some way. Interesting!

  2. Interesting how words with such different meanings can be related.

  3. Well, I guess a painting is a portrayal of sorts. Or something. And it sounds like we've been verbing words for way longer than I realized.


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