Thursday, January 14, 2010

When is an English root word like a Mafia don?

Here’s a philological game to pass an idle moment: try to think of basic English roots that attach to a wide variety of prefixes to form new words. I often find myself going through them in my head, always looking for the best-connected root — the Vito Corleone of English roots, if you like. Is it perhaps √SPECT “to look”, with its halo of aspect, expect, inspect, prospect, respect, suspect? Or √DICT “to say, speak”, with its wider nimbus of addict, apodictic, edict, contradict, indict, interdict, predict? And by the way, benediction, malediction, jurisdiction, valedictory, verdict, etc., don’t count, since these don’t involve proper prefixes, but are actually two roots linked together.

So, which English root has the most connections? Which is the biggest don, making the largest crowd of English prefixes an offer they can’t refuse? The basic rules of the game are: (a) start with a basic English root, usually describing a simple, concrete action — that is, not just any abstract root whatsoever, but one of the fundamental roots at the beginning of the English evolutionary chain; then, (b) see how many standard prefixes (not other roots) you can tack on to make real English words. (I suppose one could try this game in other languages as well, if they are constructed along similar morphological lines. It should work for most of the European languages, if perhaps not as well as for English.)

Does that sound like fun to you? I usually do it in my head, so I don’t have any systematic written record of my meanderings among the prefixes. But so far, the best-connected roots I think I’ve found are √JECT “to throw” and √DUCT “to lead”. For each, I’ve come up with twelve combinations of prefix and root — have I missed any? Note that these must be distinct. One cannot add adjacent or ejaculate, or conducive or educe, even though these are words with somewhat different meanings, because their prefixes are already accounted for. Can anyone think of a fundamental English root with more than twelve connections?

For √JECT “to throw”, I’ve got:
  • Abject: “thrown away from [something better]”
  • Adjective: “thrown toward, near [a noun]”
  • Conjecture: “thrown together [to make a guess]”
  • Dejected: “thrown apart, away”
  • Eject: “throw out, away from”
  • Inject: “throw in(to)”
  • Interject: “throw among, between [other words]”
  • Object: “throw against” [e.g., a point of argument]
  • Project: “throw forward” [e.g., your voice]
  • Reject: “throw back”
  • Subject: “throw under(neath)”
  • Trajectory: “thrown across, through, beyond”
And for √DUC(T) “to lead”:
  • Abduct: “lead away”
  • Adduce: “lead toward [i.e., bring forward]”
  • Conduct: “lead together” [e.g., a symphony]
  • Deduce: “lead out” [e.g., a conclusion]
  • Educate: “lead out of [childhood, into the adult world]”
  • Induce: “lead into” [i.e., persuade]
  • Introduce: “lead into [something]”
  • Produce: “lead forward [i.e., bring out]”
  • Reduce: “lead back”
  • Seduce: “lead apart, astray”
  • Subduct: “lead under(neath)”
  • Transduction: “led across, through, beyond”
Aren’t word-games fun? Along similar lines, my friend Gary and I used to coin new words by taking existing prefix + root combi-nations, and shuffling new prefixes into them. For example, we usually say that the opposite of the impossible is simply the possible, but shouldn’t it be the *expossible (on the model of impose and expose)? Or, if “making a prediction” is guessing about a future outcome, would “making a postdiction” be saying “I told you so!”, after the fact?


  1. Well, the root word game is fun, but the trouble here is that so many of these so-called English roots aren't English at all -- they are from Latin roots such as "jacere" (to throw) or "ducere" (to lead or guide). A veritable batch of "inkhorn" stuff -- I much prefer making good old fashioned Anglo Saxon compounds and other derivatives.

    For instance, "television" is a bad portmanteau -- why not follow the German "fernsehen" and call these things "farseers"? My daughter and I enjoy making such compounds for everyday objects; we call shoes "footbuckets" and hats "headcovers," following the anti-inkorn Saxon nativists' notions. The possibilities are endless: shirts could be "chestswraps," cars could be "peoplecarriers," and the Internet itself could be a "wordweaving-farcarrier." I'll admit the words take longer to say, but they're much more fun!

  2. Nifty game!

    Russell, you might enjoy Anglish. I really like "footbucket"!

  3. Would deduct also go on that list? Different word than deduce.

  4. Strike out "educate". It has nothing to do with leading - the -ducAre (not ducere) element (also found in "manducare") has to do with nourishing. I haven't got a decent Latin dictionary to hand, or I'd give more detail.

  5. What about '-pose'?

    prepose (admitetedly obsolete)
    propose (and purpose, which has the same etymolgy, I think)

    That's sixteen, if I've counted right.
    Then there's -ward(s), not Latin-based, though related to `versus', and still productive if I'm not mistaken. So I won't give a list.

    Renée Vink

  6. Renée, very nice, and from a non-native speaker, too! I will admit, I was not familiar with "extrapose", "prepose", or "superpose", but they appears to be valid words (albeit rare, archaic, or jargon). "Juxtapose" is the pleasantly surprising one, since juxta– wouldn’t normally occur to most people trying the game. It comes from a preposition meaning “close”, but it is has just about died out. (I did find another juxta– word, and I wrote about it here.) Speaking of prepositions, even if we disallowed "prepose", "preposition" would serve in its place.

    Anyway, I think we have a new leading contender! Well done! Can anyone do better?

  7. @Jeremy: "deduct" and "deduce" are different words, yes, but they both use the same prefix, so you can’t count them both. :)

    @Anonymous: The authorities tend to disagree with you there. I’ll give you two. (I) Walter Skeat provides this etymology for “educate”: “Lat. educatus, pp. of educare, to bring out, educate; which from educere, to bring out. See Educe.” (II) Ernest Weekley gives: “From L. educare, cogn[ate] with educere, to lead out, whence educe, eduction, etc.” Moreover, one Latin dictionary I consulted agrees the educare, is “ult[imately] fr[om] ducere.”

    @Russell: Your comments remind me of George Brewerton’s famous remarks at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, remarks which made a big impression on the young J.R.R. Tolkien. Instead of using modern Latinate words, Brewerton wanted his students to rely on “plain old words of the English language”. “Manure?” said Brewerton, “Call it muck! say it three times! Muck, muck, muck!” (Problem there is, “muck” isn’t English either; it’s Norse; better would have been “dung”.)

    Still, this is a game of Modern English, so it suits me well enough to include all the useful roots of today, whether they be Germanic, Latin, or Greek. And remember, Old English itself, like the other medieval Germanic languages, was an Indo-European tongue, pretty closely related to Latin in any case. Myself, I don’t see any need to avoid useful words of a Latin origin, unless there is a more common, more useful word derived from Old English.

    Yours is a pretty fun game, too, though I’m not sure why you’d dislike “shoe” or “hat” — both are straight from Old English. “Television” I can understand, and I like your substitute; it’s just what Tolkien’s palantír means in Quenya.

  8. << ...remarks which made a big impression on the young J.R.R. Tolkien ...“Manure?” said Brewerton, “Call it muck! ...” (Problem there is, “muck” isn’t English either; it’s Norse; better would have been “dung”.) >>

    And so Tolkien uses both "muck" and "dung" but not "manure" in The Lord of the Rings. Here's a fun look at Tolkien's "dirty" words: Dildo Bugger's Brainteasers.

  9. Thanks, N.E. Brigand. That was an entertaining game of word-unscramble! :)

    And good of you to point out that Tolkien used both Germanic words, but not the French-from-Latin “manure”, introduced into England sometime after the Norman Conquest.

    Actually' “manure” is a pretty interesting word too. As you might guess, it derives ultimately from the Latin manus “hand” and originalled just referred to land tilled or worked by hand. It’s a contraction of “maneuver”, which has a totally different meaning today. The words “manners” is related, too, contrary to intuition. Isn’t is funny that something you absolutely would not want to touch with your hands comes from a root word that implies exactly that?! :)

  10. As Russell said, all the examples are Latin roots. I would even go farther and say that the compounds themselves are Latin: English did not add the prefixes, but took the full words as it found them. In any case, English may have less of these compounds than Latin, either because it never adopted them or because they fell out of use. Some examples of the latter, with OED definitions:

    - circumduction: The action of leading round or about; a roundabout or circuitous course
    - diduce: To pull or draw away or apart
    - educe: To draw forth so as to remove
    - extraduce: From or after the fashion of a layer; hence, derived as from a parent stock
    - obduce: To cover, envelop
    - superduce: To superinduce

    ...taking the list of duc-derivatives to 18. And only because I can't find anything related to L praeduco "to construct (defensive works, etc.) along a line in front".

    As regards educare, it should be said that Walde-Hoffmann, Pokorny, Ernout-Meillet and Glare all relate it to duc-, not to manduco (which seems to be just a derivative on mando, BTW).

    Finally, there could be yet another category for the game in two-prefix derivatives, such as reproduce, superinduce above, or even misconduct (of mixed origin).

  11. Hlaford, thanks for the contribution. I think I should clarify (since both you and Russell have mistaken my intent) that when I said “English roots” in my post, I meant simply the roots of English words. I did not mean to imply roots from native (Old) English word-stock. Such a game would be considerably more limited. Neither of you has said so, but we might as well: almost all of the prefixes are from Latin as well. Old English only had a few of these (however, its tradition of compounding was quite robust).

    Having said this, let me comment on your suggested additions to √DUC(T). I would have to rule out educe, since I already have educate with the same prefix. And I am inclined to rule out superduce as well, since the real meaning is superinduce, and I already have induce. I’m not sure about diduce; I’m not familiar with the word, but from the definition you provided, it sounds like it uses the same prefix as deduce (in spite of different spelling). But circumduction, extraduce, and obduce look good. That makes a definite fifteen. Still short of Renée’s contender. But if we can allow one or two of the ones I’m inclined to disqualify, we might have a new leader.

    I like the idea of the two-prefix variation very much! Ho, ho, somebody after my own heart! Much more challenging! :)

  12. Well, the prefix in diduce is altogether different from that in deduce (cfr. depose/dispose); it means "separation and/or dispersal, e.g. dissoluo, discedo, diffugio, diuello, etc., sometimes also involving the reversal of a previous process, e.g. disiungo, dissocio; it has a negative sense in, e.g., difficilis, dissimilis, displiceo. An intensifying force as in disamo, discupio is app. colloquial" (Glare). The OED etymological note for diduce says: "L. diducere to pull asunder or apart, pull in two, from di-, dis- + ducere to lead, draw. Used in 16–17th c., and sometimes confused in form with deduce."

    Some more participants:

    - perduce: To bring on, lead on; to induce.
    - retroduction: In Philos., a type of logical reasoning that develops from some commonly accepted proposition until reasons are found that may alter the acceptance or understanding of the original proposition

    Educe: it's all right if you delete it; but it can still make a good substitute if educare is finally dismissed.

    But I will make a plea for superduce: it appears in English at least in 1477, whereas superinduce is found in 1555 at the earliest. The meaning in Classical Latin is "To bring home as a successor to a former wife", and super(in)duce (also sometimes superinduct) is "To bring (a person) into some position in addition to, or so as to displace, one who already occupies it. a. To take (a second wife) within the lifetime of the first (or, by extension, shortly after her death); also, to bring (the child of another wife) into the inheritance in preference to the former heir."

    I have to be honest - I am witholding evidence which might turn the scale in favor of -pose, such as antipose ("To set in opposition", Greek prefix anti-), antepone (Latin prefix ante-; note that -pone here is to -pose the same as -duce is to -duct), and subterpose ("To place underneath").

    All-OE prefixed words can't be dismissed off-hand. See for example -stand, with an honorable eight: forestand, understand, onstand, withstand, bestand, overstand, bystander, upstand, and maybe others.

    (One more thing: the relationship between apodictic and the rest of the DICT series is indirect; it comes from Greek deik- dik- "point" and is etymologically related to Latin dico, but on the same basis all derivatives of Greek dike, OE taecan (> teach), Lat index, vindicare and iudex, and what not, would come in. Come to think of it, Archduke might easily be added to the -duce list :)

    I loved this post.

  13. Great post -- great responses -- this is fun.

    I am still hung up, though on the "duc" root. Anonymous was not right, I think, in making a connection to nourishing, but the notion of "that which can be led" and is therefore pliable (Lat. ductilis) gives us English "ductile," and even those "ducts" through which air is "led," and with with Gilliam had so much fun in his film Brazil. Education, if we reason it from ex-ductere could mean to lead forth, or to draw out, or to make ductile or pliable (as an educator, I like all of these!). There is also a fading archaic sense of ducting as drawing (cf. Latin ductus litterarum) both artistic and literary portraits. Lewis & Short offer a few other variants which also made it into English -- Duke (military leader), also by association the hands ("put up your dukes"). Not a bad root after all!

  14. Hlaford and Russell, thank you both for continuing the fight. I’m glad you enjoyed the post so much. I love infecting other people’s mind my own time-wasting word-games! :) Hlaford, your post reinforces what I’ve known for a long time — I need to get an OED (or else, online access)! Most of the words you’ve gotten from there are not in my American Heritage, 3rd edition. Also, another √pose word that nobody has noted yet is “counterpose”. Are we keeping track of which root is in the lead? :)

    We also have to be careful to include only those words that, even if rare or part of some jargon, have gained some measure of real acceptance. It’s very easy — too easy, in English — to coin new words merely for the nonce, especially by back formation or ad hoc substitution of prefixes, but only when those words have gained some real life (even if they subsequently went out of common use again) should we include them. I’m not disqualifying any of these words (yet), just issuing a caution.

    BTW, as much fun as it would be, I don’t think archduke can be included, since arch– is really an adjectival modifier, not a genuine prefix. :)

    Russell, yes, you’re right about the fascinating etymological implications of educate. Eric Partridge traces a series of interesting connections in his etymological dictionary, Origins, and in fact, he places educate in a subparagraph to the head-word, DUKE. And Brazil is one of my favorite films! :)

  15. What about -impose as a root word?

  16. Good one, Anon. But pose would be the root, and im– would be one of the prefixes (along with de–, re–, sup–, trans–, etc.).