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English’s Debt to Latin

Well, it’s a pretty big, debt and a very cool one. The word 'debt' itself comes from the Latin verb 'debeo' - to owe. Some of our most beautiful words come from Latin, e.g., eloquence.

I have just posted a neat little exercise on derivatives for those at the early stages of their study of Latin on my profile.

Please feel free to download and use.

I thought I would also share one of my favourite English/Latin derivatives. In some ways it can be dubbed a false friend. A false friend is where the meaning of the derived word does not accurately lead you back to the meaning of the original. However, this is a lovely one, because there is a clear link between those different meanings.

Latin has the verb:

comprehendo, comprehendere, comprehendi, comprehensus

Quite understandably, if you have never met this verb before, your instinct is to think, ‘it means to understand’.

My dear Latin GCSE teacher, Miss Barrett, when giving us a vocab test which included this verb said, 'if you put understand, award yourself six-thousand million minus marks’. We had to get away from the hang up of the English meaning.

So, what’s the original meaning? To seize or to arrest. Okay…erm…yes, you probably don’t think immediately of being arrested when you understand something.

But hang on! There is an exciting link. What we see here is an evolution from a physical meaning to a more mental and even emotional one.

When you understand something, you can be said to 'grasp’ the idea; an 'arresting’ poem or piece of music 'seizes’ your imagination. You 'lay hold of’ a concept.

And a 'comprehensive’ approach has grasped a good overall approach that reflects most aspects of a subject.

That is great. How wonderful language is! Do you comprehend?


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