Chapter 14: Compound Words in Latin

§95. Interesting Words

The verb sistere, status (“cause to stand”), in its combining form -stit-, provides the key to solstice (< L sol-stit-ium), the “sun-standing” that occurs when the sun seems poised over the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn at the beginning of summer and winter. (For the -ium suffix, see §74) Did you realize that there is also a lunistice when the moon is farthest north or south each month? The end of a war brings about an armistice, a “standing of weapons.” From inter-stit-ium, a “standing between,” English gets interstice (usually pluralized as interstices).[1] The seasonal opposite of a solstice is an equinox (L aequ-i-nox)—not to be interpreted as an equine ox!

English has a set of descriptive compounds that use the noun base forma (“shape”). For instance, multiform (L mult-i-form-is) is “many-shaped,” while cruciform is “cross-shaped.” Ancient cuneiform writing uses symbols shaped like wedges. From cancer, cancri, “crab,” comes cancriform; from caper, capri, “goat,” comes capriform. The constellation Capricorn (L Capr-i-corn-us), mentioned just above, means “goat-horned.”

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Roman engineering was the aqueduct (L aquae-ductus), a “leading of water.” The English spelling reflects the Latin genitive case, since this compound is a grammatical unit. Our word viaduct is a modern coinage; if it had existed in Latin, it would likely have been “viae-ductus.”

Several manu- compounds are also syntactical units, where the ablative form manūmeans “by hand.” We’ve seen manufacture; we can add manuscript (originally manu scriptus), and manumit / manumission, the formal act of freeing a slave. Our French loan-word manoeuvre (U.S. maneuver) goes back to manu operari, “work by hand.”

If you firmly associate mitigate with the adjective mitis (“gentle,” “mild”), you won’t make the mistake of confusing mit-ig-ate (“drive gentle”; i.e., “soften,” “mollify”) with milit-ate, “to soldier.” The commonly heard expression “mitigate against” is nonsense.

The verb caedere, caesus (“cut,” “kill”) appears in matricide (L matr-i-cid-ium), “mother-killing” and homicide (hom-i-cid-ium), “manslaughter.” There were two different Latin nouns—hom-i-cid-ium, the act of manslaughter, and hom-i-cid-a, the person committing the act; English dictionaries show two parallel words homicide. So we get parricide, regicide, tyrannicide, infanticide, and the like. Curiously enough, the word suicide is a modern coinage that does not follow Latin linguistic rules. The Romans certainly knew all about self-killing, an act praised by Stoic philosophers. However, if Seneca heard the word su-i-cid-ium, he would likely interpret it to mean “pig-slaughter” (< sus, su-is, “swine”).

This astonishing possibility may cause us to wonder whether there are other Latinate words in English that an ancient Roman might misunderstand. The problem of equator (a mysterious horseman?) was mentioned in §26. Julius Caesar would surely think that edification (aed-i-fic-at-io) referred to house construction.[2] Might he suppose that ratification meant raft-building?[3] There’s little doubt that he would take mortify to mean “kill,” since Latin mortificus conveys only one idea—“fatal.” All this just reminds us, once again, that words do undergo semantic change, and that a knowledge of etymological meanings does not guarantee absolute linguistic control.

  1. As a postgraduate exercise, you can tackle Samuel Johnson’s celebrated definition of NETWORK, in his Dictionary of 1755: “Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.”
  2. The noun aedes meant house, as did its compound aed-i-fic-ium (E edifice). Our word edify acquired its modern metaphorical meaning in the 16th century.
  3. In Latin, ratis is the noun “raft”; ratus (from the verb reri, ratus) is “fixed,” “settled.” Neither word was combined with any form of facere in classical Latin.


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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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