Thursday, November 11, 2021

Language Of Confusion: Totally Radical

Not sure what prompted me to look at this word, but it seems fun. Especially when you actually look at all the words related.
Radical showed up in the late fourteenth century, though back then it meant either something originating in a root/the ground or body parts or fluids vital to life. Sometime in the mid seventeenth century it started to mean essential or originating, and then in the late eighteenth century it was used to refer to radical reform—as in, change at the roots. Then some time in 1921, a hundred years ago now, people started using it to mean unconventional. Anyway, radical comes from the classical Latin radicalis, from radix, which means root. That’s from the Proto Indo European wrad-, which means branch or root and is the origin for many other surprising words.
Eradicate at least makes sense for being related to radical. It showed up in the early fifteenth century from the classical Latin eradicatus, uproot. The verb form of that, eradicare, is a mix of ex-, out, and radix, meaning this word is “root out”.
Now we might as well look at root since it is related. Root comes from the Old English rot (it was pronounced with a long o, so it was basically still just root), from the Proto Germanic wrot, which is then from wrad-. Basically, it’s what radical used to mean, but it came to us through Germanic instead of Latin. Wort has a similar origin, coming from the Proto Germanic wurtiz, and then wrad-. I don’t even know why they bothered differentiating the words.
Now we’re getting into the fun ones. Licorice—the plant and thus the candy—showed up sometime around the thirteenth century as licoriz. It’s from the Anglo French lycoryc and Old French licorece, from the Late Latin liquiritia, and that one is from the classical Latin glychyrrhiza, from the Greek glykyrrhiza. No, a cat didn’t walk across my keyboard, those are words. The first part, glykus, means sweet (it’s related to glucose) and the rhiza means root and is also from wrad-. Licorice is sweet root. But we dropped the G for some reason.
The last one’s really going to seem weird: ramification. Really! It showed up in the late seventeenth century from the French ramification, branching out. Apparently a ramification as in a consequence is considered to be an outgrowth, or literally a branching out. The word is from the Old French verb ramifier, the origin of ramify, and that’s from the Medieval Latin ramificari, to form branches, from the classical Latin ramus, branch. And if you haven’t already figured it out, ramus is from wrad-. Crazy how using a word figuratively can cause it to radically change its meaning.
Heh, radically.
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
Fordham University
Orbis Latinus


  1. I would have thought radical to be relatively new.

    Can we eradicate spammers?

  2. So the math part came from the whole root meaning? (I was in high school in the '80s, so we had a lot of fun using radical double meanings while studying square roots and such.)

  3. Interesting information and as Liz says...I was also in high school in 80s!

  4. I still think your cat walked on the keyboard.


Please validate me.