15 Perfect Metaphors Hidden in Word Etymologies
By Arika Okrent
It's human nature to conceive of abstract ideas through more immediate, concrete experiences—which is to say, through metaphors. Most of the words we have for abstract concepts began this way. We can still find evidence of these originating metaphors in the etymological history of our words. Here are 15 of them hidden in words where we may not see them anymore.
The central root of companion is pan- from the Latin for bread. Com is from the word for "with." A companion is a “with bread person,” a person you break bread with.
Explain comes from ex planare, or “out flatten.” When you explain something you flatten it out for inspection, so the meaning is laid out clearly for viewing.
The morse in remorse is from mordere, "to bite" (also found in the word morsel). When you have remorse over something, it is returning to bite at you.
In classical Latin, a norma was a carpenter’s square, used for confirming straight, right angles. To be normal is to be in accordance with the norma, to fit into the standard measurement.
In Latin, spirare is "to breathe." To ex spirare is to breathe out. When something expires, it has breathed out its last breath.
Pendere is to hang. It is also the root of pendulum. De- is "from," so to depend is to hang from. When something depends on something else, it hangs from it, at its mercy if it should let go.
The cord in discord is from the Latin word for heart. When there is discord, hearts are divided or separated from each other.
The –pede, also found in centipede and millipede, comes from the Latin for foot. Something that is impeded cannot go; its feet are entangled or otherwise obstructed.
Fant is the past participle of fari, to speak. To be infant is to be non-speaking or unable to speak. The word captures a salient characteristic of babies and very young children.
In Latin, humus is the earth, the soil, the ground (also seen in exhume, to bring something out of the ground). Humility is the characteristic of being low to the ground, and to humiliate is to bring someone to that low level.
Obvious comes from a joining of ob- (toward, against, in front of) and via (way, road). When something is obvious it is right there, in the way of you, in front of you in the road. You can’t miss it.
Dict is the past participle of the Latin dire, to speak or say. And ver- is the root for truth. A verdict is proclamation of a decision reached after judging the evidence, a saying of the truth.
The Latin verb minere is to hang over or jut out. Something that is in minere, or imminent, is hanging over or jutting out so much that it is about to fall.
The heart of this word is the root ducere, to lead. Appended to the front is e-, a shortened version of ex-, meaning "out." To educate is to lead out. Two metaphorical views are possible, one where the student is being led out of ignorance, and another where the potential of the student is being led out by the process of education.
Preposterous combines pre-, meaning "before" and post-, meaning "after." To be preposterous is to be before the after, or all out of order, which is a preposterous state to be in.