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Lost in Derivation

Well, 'Changed in Derivation' might be more accurate. Some English derivatives from Latin show a slightly altered meaning from that of their Latin parent, but where the relationship to the original is clear. One of my favourites is comprehendere, which in Latin means ‘to arrest, grasp, seize’ in a physical sense. Yet, the English derivative means ‘to understand’. The basic meaning of ‘grasp’ is still present, it has simply switched from a ‘physical’ action to a more ‘conceptual’ one, that of grasping an idea with the mind.

The Latin verb intellegere, means ‘to understand’, but the English word ‘intelligent’ means to be clever. The connection here is perhaps more obvious. If one is ‘intelligent’, one can ‘understand’ something. If something is ‘intelligible’ it is something that can be understood. But to translate the Latin verb as 'to be intelligent' usually results in a very silly sentence.

‘Invention’ or ‘invent’ comes from the part participle of the Latin verb ‘invenire’ to find. One maybe tends to think of the English ‘to invent’ as meaning come up with something new, whereas the Latin verb tends to refer to literally finding something or someone. Nevertheless, as with comprehendere, the basic core meaning remains. Here, it is the notion of ‘discovery’, but the English contains a greater sense of innovation than its parent word.

Those wonderful (er, mostly) machines called computers take their name from the Latin verb computare, ‘to calculate, sum up’. How does this apply to playing Grand Theft Auto, or Wii MarioKart? Surely, it seems miles away. Not at all. Computers are programmed using calculations to create a result and enable the computer to calculate further results. A basic summary of a complex process that creates techno wizardry.

I have saved a favourite of mine until last. ‘Science’ which comes from the Latin scientia meaning knowledge. Essentially, our science really refers to knowledge and understanding of the world around us. However, ‘the sciences’ has come to be closely defined with certain subjects often in opposition to ‘arts’ or ‘humanities’, and often carrying an unfavourable view of latter. Yet, all form part of the sum of our scientia, and I rather think the Latin original should encourage us to think more broadly about our own term.

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