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15 Words With Origins So Obvious You Never Noticed Them

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The red car is fast, the blue one is faster, and green is the fastest. As you may recall from grammar class, these three words make up the positive, comparative, and superlative forms of the word fast. But there is a handful of words in English so common that we’ve forgotten they were formed using these -er and -est suffixes. Like upper, which literally means “more up” (up plus -er). But this word has become so familiar that we no longer think of it as the comparative of up. Here are 15 other such words whose origins are hiding right under your nose.

1. LATTER

Etymologically speaking, latter just means “more late.” It comes from the Old English lætra (slower), the comparative form of læt, (slow) and source of late. Lætra also carried the sense of our modern later, but the latter word didn’t actually emerge until the 1500s.

2. LAST

And if you’re “most late”? You’re last. Last is the superlative form of læt. Way back, last was latost, and was worn down over the years to last.

3. LEAST

Last isn’t always least, as they say, but both words are superlatives. Leastlǽsest in Old English and meaning smallest—is the superlative of lǽs, itself a comparative meaning smaller.

4. LESSER

The Old English lǽs gives us less. But if we’re sticklers, lesser is technically a double comparative: “more smaller.” Legendary lexicographer Samuel Johnson couldn’t care less about lesser, calling it “a barbarous corruption of less, formed by the vulgar from the habit of terminating comparatives in -er."

5. INNER

Inner may just make you facepalm: It’s “more in.” The Old English comparative of in (or inne) was innera; the superlative was innemost, now inmost. With use and time, inner became its own positive form, now taking inmost and innermost as its comparative and superlative forms, respectively.

Now, most comparative forms are followed by than, as in "the green car is faster than the blue one." Curiously, inner stopped doing this in Middle English. For instance, we don’t say "the kitchen is inner than the foyer."

6. NEAR

The end is nigh: we usually explain that crusty-sounding nigh as near. But near already means “more nigh”: In Old English, near was the comparative of nēah, now nigh. Over the centuries, near went off on its own and is now no longer felt as a comparative, just like inner. And so near is the modern nigh after all.

7. NEXT

As for the superlative of nēah? That would be nēahst, “most nigh,” which we now call next. But why the x? In Old English, the h in nēahst would have sounded something like the ch in Scottish loch. Follow that guttural consonant with an s and you eventually get the x sound.

8. UTTER

Historically, utter is just outer, or “more out.” Old English had the word út, meaning "out." Its comparative was úterra. By the early 1400s, utter had shifted to its modern meaning of absolute. Also emerging by this time was the verb utter, literally “to put out (goods, money, statements),” in part influenced by the adjective utter.

9. OUTER

When utter moved on and lost its association with út/out, it left a gap in the language. Outer, meaning “more out” and formed by analogy with inner, naturally filled it. But like inner, outer has become its own positive form, taking outmost and outermost as its comparative and superlative. The original superlative of út/out would have been utmost, which moved on to mean extreme.

10. FURTHER

At this point you may be wondering, is further …“more furth”? Yes, it’s just that we’d recognize furth as forth today. This makes further “more forth” or “more fore.” And all that business about reserving farther for physical distances and further for abstract ones? Cockamamie. Farther began as a variant of further—and both of them ousted the normal comparative of far, which was simply farrer. Oh, could English go any farther, er, further to make things complicated?

11. FIRST

If further corresponds to “more fore,” then what about “most fore”? That would be first, the “fore-est,” if we gloss over some vowel changes that happened in English long, long ago. It’s a sensible construction: That which comes before everything else is indeed first. Today, "fore-est" answers to foremost.

12. AFTER

Everything else is after what comes first. Is after “more aft,” then? Not quite. It’s more like “more off” in the sense of “farther behind” or “more away.” The af- in after corresponds to off (as well as of), the -ter to an ancient comparative suffix. But we’d have to travel back thousands of years before we’d find any speaker would register after as a comparative.

13. RATHER

It’s rare now, but English once had the adjective rathe, meaning quick or eager. (We might think of being rathe as the opposite of being loath.) So, if you are “more rathe”? You’re rather. If you’d rather watch paint dry than finish this article, you’d “more readily” do so. Or, rather, you’re the type who finds this arcane trivia edifying. This adverbial rather has the sense of “more properly”; you more truly do something if you carry it out willingly. And if you have your druthers, or preference, you have playfully contracted I would rather.

14. ELDER

Literally speaking, your elder is just someone older than you—but you better not say that your grandparents. Elder and older are both comparatives of the Old English (e)aldOlder did not show respect for its elder, supplanting it as the common comparative around the 1500s. The Old English ald, meanwhile, hangs on in the auld of “Auld Lang Syne” (for Old Times’ Sake) and alderman.

15. ERSTWHILE

Finally, erstwhile is a snazzy word for former, often seen in the expression erstwhile enemies. But what is the erst in erstwhile, anyway? Old English had ǽr (soon, before), which you’ll recognize as ere from your Shakespeare. Its superlative was ǽrest, or “most ere,” hence erst.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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