15 Perfect Metaphors Hidden in Word Etymologies


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.

Why Do Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Instead of ‘Football’?

While more Americans than ever are embracing soccer, they can't even get the sport's name right, according to some purists. For most of the world, including the vast majority of Europe and South America, it’s football, fútbol, or some other variation. In the United States, Canada, Japan, and a few other stragglers, it’s firmly known as soccer, much to the annoyance of those who can't understand how a sport played with feet and a ball can be called anything else. So why the conflict?

According to a paper [PDF] by University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski, it all began in England in the early 1800s, when a version of the sport of football—based on a game played by “common people” in the Middle Ages—found its way into the recreational scene of some of the country’s most privileged schools. To give uniformity to the competitions between these schools and clubs, a set of standard rules was drafted by students in Cambridge in 1848. These rules would become further solidified when they were adopted by the more organized Football Association in 1863.

It wasn't long before variations of the sport began to splinter off—in 1871, the Rugby Football Union was founded, using Rugby School rules from the 1830s that allowed a player to run with the ball in their hands. This new take on the sport would be known as rugby football, or rugger, to separate itself from association football, the traditional feet-only version of the sport. From there, association football would get the nickname assoccer, leading eventually to just soccer. The addition of an "er" at the end of a word was something of a trend at the time, which is why we get the awkward transformation of association into assoccer and soccer.

The first recorded American football game was between the colleges of Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 and used unique rules derived from those in both association and rugby football. Though this new, evolving game would just be called football in the U.S., elsewhere it would become known as gridiron football or American football, much in the way Gaelic football and Australian football have their own distinctions. Eventually in England, rugby football was shortened to just rugby, while association football simply became known as football. Which meant that now there were two footballs, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and neither side would budge. And Americans would begin referring to England's football by the previous nickname, soccer.

Despite the confusion nowadays, soccer was still a colloquial term used in England well into the 20th century—it rose in popularity following World War II before falling out of favor in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to Szymanski. In more recent years, it’s mostly been used in England in a strictly American context, like when publications and the media refer to U.S. leagues like Major League Soccer (MLS). Currently, soccer is mostly used in countries that have their own competing version of football—including the United States, Canada, and Australia.

While it boils the blood of certain traditionalists, soccer is by no means an Americanism—like the sport itself, this is purely an English export.

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YouTube, Hélio Surdos
How a Deaf-Blind Person Watches the World Cup
YouTube, Hélio Surdos
YouTube, Hélio Surdos

Brazilian Sign Language interpreter Hélio Fonseca de Araújo woke up on the day before the opening of the World Cup in 2014 thinking about how he could help his friend Carlos, who is deaf and blind, get access to all the excitement. So he hit the hardware store, rigged up a tabletop model of the field, and enlisted his friend Regiane to provide extra interpretation for all the complex information that needs to come through in a game. He recently brought the setup out again for this World Cup.

Here you can see Carlos watching the Brazil vs. Croatia match live, while Hélio provides Brazilian Sign Language interpretation (which Carlos follows by feeling it with his own hands—this is called tactile signing), and Regiane relays information about fouls, cards, times, and player jersey numbers with social-haptic communication on Carlos’s back.

This is the moment in the second half when it appeared that Brazil had scored a goal, but a foul was called. Hélio later makes sure Carlos can see how Neymar covered his face with his shirt.

And here is Coutinho’s game-turning goal for Brazil.

If you're wondering why Carlos occasionally looks at the screen, many deaf blind people have some residual sight (or hearing). Many deaf-blind people become fluent in sign language as deaf people, before they begin to lose their sight.

See the entire video at Hélio’s YouTube channel here.

A version of this story ran in 2014.


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