Thursday, October 21, 2021

Language Of Confusion: Mortal Thoughts, Part II

No reduxes on these ones. All brand new. Well, probably. I do random words sometimes and I’m definitely too lazy to double check.
There are some weird words related to mer-, the Proto Indo European root word that means to rub away or harm and is the origin for mortal and other death related words. The words we’re looking at this week, however, aren’t death related in the slightest. And maybe not related to mer-, but let’s look at them anyway.
First is mortar—both the short cannon, the bowl for grinding, and the building material. The grinding bowl came first in the thirteenth century, shortly followed by building material, and then the cannon in the sixteenth century because it was apparently shaped like a bowl. All the mortars come from the Old French mortier, from the classical Latin mortarium, which just means mortar. It’s not definite, but it’s thought that it descends from mer-, probably in the rub away sense. Which, I mean, I guess makes sense.
Next is morsel—really. It also showed up in the late thirteenth century from the Old French morsel, and that’s from the classical Latin morsum, a bite, another word that’s supposedly descended from mer-. Of course it’s possible they aren’t related, but considering how many words are related that don’t make sense, it probably is.
With that sense, we go to look at remorse. It showed up in the late fourteenth century from the Old French remors and Medieval Latin remorsum, which literally means a biting back. It’s from the classical Latin remordere, to torment, with re- meaning again and mordere meaning to bite, another word thought to be from mer-. So how did biting back come to mean remorse? Apparently there’s a Medieval Latin phrase remorsus conscientiae, remorse of conscience. If your conscience is biting back at you, you’re feeling remorse. Obviously people wanted to shorten that, so it’s just remorse now.
Another word you’ll never expect: nightmare. The word showed up in the fourteenth century meaning an evil female spirit (eyeroll) afflicting men in their sleep with suffocation (major eyeroll). In the mid sixteenth century, it dropped the female spirit part and just meant the sensation of suffocating, and it wasn’t until 1829 that it meant a bad dream. A mare—not the female horse, which is unrelated—was a word for a night goblin or incubus, so basically the same thing as a nightmare. It comes from the Old English mare, nightmare, and Proto Germanic maron, goblin. Now, that word is from the Proto Indo European mora-, incubus, which is thought to be from mer-. Crazy, right?
Finally today, we’re looking at smart, which I’m pretty sure I’ve etymologized before, but just have to do it again because it’s so wild that it might be related to all these. Smart showed up sometime around the thirteenth century. Now, there’s a couple of definitions of smart, one meaning a sharp pain and one meaning intelligent, and yes, they are related, as in addition to pain, smart also originally meant something done with vigor or being quick and clever. Smart comes from the Old English smeart, painful or smarting, and that word comes from the Proto Indo European smerd-, pain. And that’s yet another word that people think comes from mer-, but who knows at this point? I suppose we have to blame all this on the fact that not a lot of people recorded where they came up with words. Especially back before there was writing.
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
Dictionary of Medieval Latin


  1. If it couldn't be written down, makes you wonder how the usage of a new word spread.

  2. Of course the spirit was evil female. Sigh.


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