Thursday, January 12, 2023

Language Of Confusion: Verse, Part II

More on all the words related to verse, which is from the Proto Indo European wer-, to turn or bend. Once again, this week’s words have been etymologized before, but it’s not like anyone can stop me.
Versus we kind of looked at last week since it’s the Latin version of verse. In English, it showed up in the mid fifteenth century, as legal terminology—hence why it stayed in its Latin form. It’s from the classical Latin versus, obviously, meaning turned towards or against. Its verb form is vertere, to turn, and that’s from the PIE wer-, turn or bend. If legalese wasn’t so entwined with Latin, it would probably just be verse.
Next, version, which looks like it’s related to verse  though I have a hard time imagining how. Well, might as well see why. It showed up in the late sixteenth century from the French version (same meaning), which is from the Medieval Latin versionem, a translation or a turning. It also comes from vertere, so because a translation was a different “turn” of something, we have version. I guess that makes sense, but still…
Versatile showed up in the seventeenth century, originally meaning something not being constant before it changed to “able to do many things well” in the mid eighteenth century. It comes from the classical Latin versatilisversatile, and it is from the verb versare, to turn or to engage. It is indeed related to vertere. It’s what’s known as a frequentative version of the word—a verb of continuing action, like to wrestle is a frequentative of to wrest. I guess being versatile requires a lot of turns.
Now for more words that end in verse. Universe showed up in the mid sixteenth century, coming from the Old French univers and before that the classical Latin universum, the universe. The uni- is from unus, one, and the rest is versus. That means the universe is… one turn??? Funnily enough, university is actually an older word, having shown up in the fourteenth century. It’s from the Anglo French université/Old French universite, from the Medieval Latin universitatem, from universus, whole or entire (hence universe). It might still seem weird for university to come from that, but as it turns out, it’s from a Latin phrase, universitas magistrorum et scholarium: community of masters and scholars. A university is a “community”.

Diverse is kind of weird since it used to be spelled divers, but no, it is not the plural of diver. With the e at the end, it showed up in the late fourteenth century while divers showed up in the late thirteenth century [] from the classical Latin diversus, different []. It’s a mix of the prefix dis-, meaning aside [] here, and versus, so diverse is to turn aside. Somehow. 
Finally, controversy. It showed up in the late fourteenth century meaning a debate of “contrary opinions”. It’s from the Old French controversie and classical Latin controversia, controversy. The verb form is controversus, a mix of contra, against, and versus. A controversy is a turning against. How sensible.
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
Dictionary of Medieval Latin
Fordham University


  1. To do many things well - definitely versatile.

  2. Universal versatility in diversity often causes controversy....

  3. Why do I feel it was a swipe at women with the original meaning of versatile? As for universe, I've always seen it as "one song"...


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