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Wordy Weekly XXXV

Ancient Derivatives Outside of English

Words in other languages that come from Latin or Greek this week, and one from another Ancient language...all will be revealed.

Latin is not dead, it has evolved. There are plenty of other ways in which Latin is not dead, but I will confine myself to the linguistic derivative side for today.

So, let’s take a Spanish, French, Italian tonight, and we will come to Portuguese, German, and, Russian next time.


TORO – ultimately, it derives from the Latin for bull, taurus. TOREAR means ‘to fight bulls’. It is worth noting that the Latin and ancient Greek words for bull are exactly the same.

LATIN: taurus GREEK: ταυρος

CONOCER/SABER – these two verbs have Classical origins. CONOCER is ultimately from Greek via Latin. The Greek γιγνώσκω became the Latin cognosco – know, get to know. SABER comes from the Latin sapio – be wise.


ÉGLISE – this comes from the Greek ἐκκλησία meaning ‘assembly’. The term eventually came to refer to a ‘church’, a type of assembly of course and this is where we get the word ‘ecclesiastical’ from which means ‘relating to the church’. In ancient Greek, it generally referred to the popular assembly at the centre of a democratic government, in which the demos made the decisions.

ÊTRE - this is an interesting one. My initial thought was that it came from ‘esse’, Latin infinitive of the verb ‘to be’, with the circumflex on the French infinitive indicating the dropping of the ‘s’ with the evolution of the term. However, when I did a search on thisout of curiosity, I also found an argument that it came from Latin ‘stare’ – to stand, be situated. It is highly likely that the verbs merged to form the old French ESTER, whence comes ÊTRE. If one also compares the conjugation of ÊTRE with that of ‘esse’, a relationship between the two words is clear:


sum je suis

es tu es

est il/elle/on est

sumus nous sommes

estis vous êtes

sunt ils/elles sont


I have three Italian words for you: one from Latin; one from Greek; and one from another ancient language. The influence of Latin on Italian should come as no surprise. I even managed to make myself understood to an Italian student I met in the Capitoline Museums after my meagre Italian ran out, and I drifted into Latin. Anyway, the word is:

AVERE: this was originally the Latin verb ‘habere’. The ‘h’ has disappeared (one school of thought suggests it was only lightly pronounced in Latin anyway) and the ‘b’ has become a ‘V’. The connection between P, B, and V will become clearer when we explore Russian next time. French speakers will also spot that ‘habere’ is the Latin verb behind ‘AVOIR’.

BOCCALE: this word, meaning mug or tankard came to Italian from Greek via late Latin. The koine Greek βαύκαλις, meaning ‘jar for cooling wine, became baucalis in Latin. The evolution into Italian changed the ‘au’ diphthong into ‘o’. This change is evident in a number of other Italian words, for example ORO meaning gold from the Latin ‘aurum’.

VITELLO: now, this is one of my favourites. It does not come from Latin. It comes from Oscan. This was spoken in the south of Italy by several peoples, but the most prominent were the Samnites, who were highly skilled fighters and implacably hostile to Rome. The modern Italian word means veal. The ancient Oscan vitelliù means ‘young bull’ and it is also the word for Italy, ‘country of the young cattle’, and in fact, the word Italia may derive from the Oscan vitelliù. Why I like this so much is not only because it is from a different ancient language, but the fact that the word was used on a coin by the rebels in the Social War against Rome make it a very potent slogan of independence. The Samnites hated Rome and this was their last stand.

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