Chapter 3: The Latin Noun (Declensions 3, 4, 5)

§19. Interesting Words

A third-declension Latin noun of the labor type was umor, source of English humour (humor) and humorous. It may puzzle you to learn that its original meaning was “moisture”—it’s related to humid—unless you know something about the ancient medical theory of the humours, the four fluids that were thought to control human disposition. These were blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile). According to this longstanding belief, well-balanced people need a proper mixture (temperamentum) of the four fluids. If our temperament is out of balance, we may perhaps behave in an erratic or “humorous” fashion. By the way, this word humorous has nothing to do with the arm-bone or humerus, an adaptation of Latin umerus, “shoulder.”

Mention has already been made of the English word crux, which means a “problem” or “puzzle.” Latin crux, crucis has given us a variety of other words, too. Christian missionaries from Ireland brought cross into the language during the Old English period. Through Dutch we got cruise, and through Spanish, crusade. Crisscross comes from Christcross. Directly linked with Latin crux are crucify, crucifixion, crucifix, crucifer, cruciform, crucial, cruciate, excruciate, and crucible. In later chapters, we’ll see how some of these derivatives acquired their form.

Another Latin word that has been highly productive in English is caput, capitis, “head.” You will think at once of capital; but that is only the beginning. Here is a partial list of derivatives: chief, chef, kerchief (a “cover-head”), handkerchief, mischief, cattle, chattel (doublets from capitalis), captain, chieftain (doublets from capitanus), cadet, cape (a “headland”), capitol, chapter, biceps (“two-headed”), decapitate, and precipitate.

A “kind” or category in biological classification is a genus (plural genera)—pure Latin. As a result of French transmission, the same word has produced the English doublets gender and genre; both also mean “kind” or “class,” but with useful differences in application. As well as being the standard word for “time,” Latin tempus could also
denote the “temple” (of the head), especially in the plural form tempora. This is apparently because the human temples were viewed as the “timely” or fatal spots. In English, temporal can mean “pertaining to time” or “pertaining to the temples.” The English homograph temple (“shrine”) is derived from an unrelated Latin 2nd declension noun, templum (“sacred enclosure,” “shrine”).

Finally, let us consider the English word host, which is actually three different words. The host who provides hospitality is derived from hospes, hospitis; the host that is a hostile army or a vast multitude (Wordsworth’s “host of golden daffodils”) comes from hostis, hostis, “enemy” (a 3rd declension noun like finis); and the host that is eaten in Christian communion or mass comes from the 1st declension noun hostia, a sacrifice. If you check your dictionary, you will find that these three HOMOGRAPHS (§12) all appear as separate word entries.[1]


  1. None of the three is the source of E hostage, which is derived ultimately from L obses, obsidis, “hostage”; still, it appears that E hostage was influenced by the unrelated Latin word hospes, hospitis.


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part I - Latin by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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