Thursday, March 3, 2022

Language Of Confusion: -Spire, Redux, Part I

It’s been around a decade since I first looked at this, so it’s been long enough that it’s almost like new.
The root linking all these together isn’t spire (which is completely separate) but spirit. It showed up in the mid thirteenth century, coming from the Anglo French spirit and Old French espirit, which just means spirit of course. It comes from the classical Latin spiritus, which meant spirit but could also mean breathing life into something. It’s related to the verb spirare, to breathe, which is thought to be from the Proto Indo European spies-, to blow. Fun fact, the reason alcohol is referred to as spirits is because it was considered a “volatile substance” in alchemy, and while alchemy might be nonsense, alcohol = spirits stuck around.
Next, respire showed up in the late fourteenth century. It comes from the Old French respire and classical Latin respirare, to breathe again—as in, to breathe in and out, over and over. The re- means again, and with spirare, the word in every way just means to breathe again. And again and again and again.
Perspire is a late one, having showed up in the mid seventeenth century—it came from perspiration, though that one only showed up a few decades earlier []. They come from the French perspiration (bet you can’t guess what that means), from the verb perspirer (another total mystery, it means to perspire). Anyway, it’s from the classical Latin perspirare, which actually means “to breathe through”, a mix of the prefix per-, forward, and spirare. Perspire literally means to breathe forward, and then somehow started to mean moisture excreted through your pores, as in sweat, because why not?
Finally today, we’re looking at aspire. It showed up in the fifteenth century from the Old French aspirer, from the classical Latin aspirare, to aspire. Shocking. Anyway, it’s a mix of the prefix ad-, to, and of course spirare, to breathe. Aspire is to breath to. Sure, whatever.
Next week, the thrilling conclusion!
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
Fordham University


  1. To breathe - well, in Genesis, God breathed life and our spirit into us, so that does make sense.

  2. I'm always suspicious when they actually make sense....

  3. I knew spirit came from breathe, but I didn't even consider that connection for alcohol and spirits. I learned something new.

    (I see Mr. Spam got your blog, too. He hit mine with 15?! spam comments. Yikes.)


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