Etymology is not semantics.
In this blog I talk a lot about etymology, because it’s fun and interesting, and tells us a lot about human nature and what concepts get associated in our minds. Meaning is such an abstract concept that a slight metaphorical push can take it in many different directions. But it’s not a ball and chain a word has to drag on forever.
It might seem that sticking to hard rules (decimate can only mean “reduce by a tenth”) will make communication easier, but it doesn’t. All words are free to live their own life and evolve, and that’s what makes languages flexible to always serve our needs. Meanings shift because speakers need them to (there’s not a lot of situations that only and exactly 10% of something is destroyed). Language is putty on our tongues.
In any case, this post came inspired from something I noticed today. Latin captivus, meaning “prisoner”, is the father of this wacky band of brothers:
- English captivate “charm, seduce” and capture “record”
- Galician cativo “little kid”
- Italian cattivo “bad, naughty”
- French chétif “puny, weak”
Originally published in The blind mouse.