Thursday, April 1, 2021

Language Of Confusion: Tracts, Part IV

Last one! Finally! None of these words actually have tract in them, but they are all from the Proto Indo European tragh-, to draw or drag something along. Let’s see how they got from there to here.
First of all, trait. Yeah, as in a characteristic. It showed up in the late fifteenth century meaning… shot or missiles. Seriously. It morphed from that into meaning a short line in drawing and somehow from there began to mean a characteristic in 1752. No idea how it got from a line in drawing to a characteristic. It just did. Trait comes from the French trait, which yes, can mean characteristic, but can also mean line, stroke, or feature. It’s from the classical Latin tractus, which I’ve mentioned before as meaning drawing something along, from the verb trahere, to pull, and that one’s from tragh-. I guess because a line is a feature of a drawing, it’s now just a feature in general? Oh, and for the record, traitor is not related to these words at all. It’s from treason, not trait.
But you know what is related? Train. When it first showed up in the early fourteenth century, obviously it didn’t mean a train that people rode on. It meant a delay—like drawing something out—and then a train like an article of clothing that trails out behind you (i.e. a bridal train). In the late fifteenth century, it meant a progression or continuous course, and then in the early eighteenth century, a locomotive with a series of cars “training” after it was a train. Plus there’s also to train something or someone. That version of the word showed up in the mid sixteenth century, in the sense that training was “drawing out” a desired outcome. At least these versions of train are related. They come from the Old French train, tracks, the trail of a gown, or the act of dragging. It’s from the Vulgar Latin traginare, from the verb tragere, which is from trahere. Things dragging after something are trains.
And as I mentioned trail, it’s time to look at how that word is somehow from tract. It showed up in the fourteenth century, where it meant something similar to train, as in clothing that trails/trains behind you. It wasn’t until the late sixteenth century that it meant a track left by an animal. It comes from the Old French trailer, which could mean to tow or to track prey, from the Vulgar Latin tragulare, to drag. It’s from the classical Latin tragula, which actually means javelin—specifically a javelin thrown by a strap. I don’t know how that would work, but something being pulled along by a strap makes sense for these words. Tragula is (probably) from trahere, and that’s why we have that.
Next, distraught. It showed up in the late fourteenth century as another way to say distracted, which we already looked at. Originally, distraught was the past tense of distract, but for some reason people gave it the -ght sound instead of -ct, and then people started using it slightly differently from how they used distracted. Distraught came to mean distressed, while people started saying distracted for the past tense of distract, which is much more sensible—almost too sensible for it to be etymology. As I mentioned with distract, the dis- prefix means away, and the rest is from trahere, to pull. Distraught is pulled away.
The last tract word we’re going to look at is retreat, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise since treat was here a few weeks ago, although a retreat is something quite different from a treat. Retreat showed up in the fourteenth century meaning a step backwards, and a little later withdrawing. It’s from the Old French retret and its verb form retrere, and that’s from the classical Latin retrahere, which meant things like withdraw or draw back. The re- means back, and trahere is draw, so there’s nothing unexpected about this one. Though it is related more closely to tract than it is to treat. That’s typical etymology weird.
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
Encyclopaedia Britannica


  1. The range of meanings of 'train' and their origin are quite interesting.

  2. A whole lot of off shoots from a root word.

  3. That -ght thing must be an older construction that was regular before it wasn't. If that made any sense.


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