Fun with Latin word origins

Fun with Latin word origins

I’m reading Mary Beard’s SPQR – a history of Rome – at the moment, and it reminded me of a great word origin fact. Our word “candidate” comes from the Latin word “candidatus”, which literally means “whitened”. It referred to the specially whitened togas that Romans standing for election wore to impress voters. This is such a delightful historical and etymological fact that I started thinking about other interesting words with Latin origins that I’ve discovered through studying Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, and a bit of Latin (little did I know that my degree would actually be relevant to my career as a copywriter!).

An insula in the Roman town of Ostia

An insula in the Roman town of Ostia

Like “candidate”, words take on additional meanings and connotations when one is aware of their origins, and there’s a world of interesting history to discover on delving into where words come from. Take the word “peninsula“, for example. This comes from the Latin words “paene” meaning “almost” and “insula” meaning “island”. So “peninsula” literally means “almost an island”. Adding an extra layer of interest to this is the fact that in ancient Rome, the word “insula” also referred to an apartment building – a block of flats, if you will. They were often large structures that occupied the whole of what we might call a “block” in the American sense of the word – so the building itself was like an island surrounded by road. We think of apartment blocks as a modern concept, but the Romans very much pioneered the idea, and these high-rise buildings housed most of the population of ancient Rome.

The Palatine Hill

The Palatine Hill

Another word we have to thank ancient Rome for is “palace“, which comes from Rome’s Palatine Hill, where the emperors lived in their lavish residences. Called the “Palatium” in ancient times, it was a desirable place to live even before the emperors took over the whole lot, as it was where Rome was said to have started – it was the location of the cave where, so the legend goes, the wolf suckled Romulus and Remus. So Buckingham Palace, Blenheim Palace et al owe their names to the earliest origins of Rome.

And there’s another Latin phrase we use all the time without even thinking about it: “et al“, which is short for “et alia”, meaning “and others”. Similarly, “etc” or “et cetera”, literally means “and the rest” in Latin.

The greater your Latin vocabulary, the more you recognise modern words from these ancient origins. “Pugnacious” comes from the Latin “pugnare” meaning “to fight”. “Amorous” comes from the Latin “amor” meaning “love” (cue the famous “Amo, Amas, Amat” – I love, you love, he/she/it loves – that introduces complete beginners to Latin). And a favourite: “defenestrate“, meaning to throw someone or something out of a window, comes from the Latin “de” (of or from) and “fenestra” (window).

So Latin isn’t really a dead language, and even a little knowledge of it has the potential to enrich one’s enjoyment of the English language immeasurably. I’m feeling quite inspired now. I might go and pick up those Latin textbooks again… Or I could just study my favourite tea towel.

The geekiest tea towel in existence

The geekiest tea towel in existence?

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