Modus verborum concipiendorum

04/28/08

Permalink 07:08:50 am, by Chris Jones Email , 316 words, 743 views   English (US)
Categories: Vocabulary and Grammar

Modus verborum concipiendorum

I’ve mentioned before that I wish students were encouraged to look at vocabulary the way the Romans did, i.e. as words formed from more basic forms in the same language.

In English, we’re used to looking to other languages for the source of vocabulary; words like “separate", “judicial", and “exacerbate” are obviously connected to Latin separo, judex, and exacerbo. But though the Romans also derived words from other languages (primarily Greek, Oscan, and Umbrian), they formed a large part of their basic vocabluary by combination within their own language:

Separo = se - “(from) itself” (abl. of the reflexive pronoun) + paro - “place".
judex = jus - “right, law” + dico - “say, speak”
exacerbo = ex - “out, outward” + acer - “bitter, sharp".

A common tendency when studying Latin vocabulary is to emphasize similar derivative English words, i.e. by talking about derivatives like “exacerbate", the student is more likely to remember the meaning of exacerbo.

The problem with this approach is that exacerbo does not quite mean “exacerbate", which American Heritage defines as “To increase the severity, violence, or bitterness of; aggravate". To be specific, “exacerbate” is almost exclusively used with things, i.e. people aren’t usually “exacerbated” (though they can be “exasperated"). Contast this with Latin, where exacerbo is most often used with people; that’s why this verb is usually defined as “irritate, enrage, provoke". When it is used with things, it is almost always limited to judicial language, i.e. “to exacerbate a crime/puinishment".

I’ll admit this is a subtle criticism, but if you’re first reaction when seeing Latin words like officium, excedo, and occurro is to translate them as “office, exceed, occur", you’re relying too much on English-cognate shorthand (the words more accurately mean “duty, withdraw/move out, run to/meet"). That’s not to say occurro can’t on occasion mean “occur", but better translators “see” the root forms ob - “toward” and curro - “run” first, not the English cognate “occur".

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Qui sciet quae quoque sint modo dicenda, nisi tamen in procinctu paratamque ad omnis casus habuerit eloquentiam, velut clausis thesauris incubabit.

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