Saturday, August 1, 2009

-ply and -plic-

Here's an interesting family of words I noticed today:


There are a few interesting things here. For one thing, while imply has a fairly similar meaning to the closely related implicate, the connection is not so clear for the pairs comply::complicate, duplicit::duplicate, or reply::replicate. How did this come about? And more generally, what is this common ply root?

So I spent some time at For most of these words, -ply comes from Latin plicāre meaning "to fold" (indeed, plywood is wood in which many layers have been "folded" on top of each other), or the related plectī, "to plait/braid/intertwine". Interestingly, gives an archaic usage of implicate to mean "to fold or twist together; intertwine; interlace".

However, there are a couple of surprises. Comply instead comes from Latin complēre, where -plē- means "fill"; we also see this in words like plenary and plenipotentiary. Thus to comply with a request is to "fulfill" it. So we can see why comply and complicate have such different meanings; their history is different. Comply does not really belong in the table above.

Another suprise is that duplicit doesn't actually seem to be a word. I will regard this as a failing of the language and not my knowledge of it: if complicity, complicit, and duplicity are all words then it is only right and proper to include duplicit.

In any case, what can we say about the literal meanings of these words in light of our new knowledge?
  • A complicated situation is one in which many factors are braided together.
  • An accomplice is complicit in a crime if he is "folded into" the plot.
  • If we say that "action implies an actor" we are saying that action and actor are woven inextricably together.
  • A duplicit man is a braid of two disparate strands (perhaps that's a stretch).
  • To reply to a question is to "fold it back" towards the questioner.
It's harder to come up with such literal interpretations of replicate and apply, but we can incorporate the sense of "folding" into our understand of the verbs.

The investigation also turns up a bunch of words with similar derivations to those originally listed. The -plex in complex and duplex also comes from plectī. Perplex and complexion are in the family too. At this point we are reminded of flex and all its relatives; flex comes from Latin flectere, "to bend", which seems similar in both meaning and spelling to the words we have been discussing, so it may be that there is some relationship; I didn't look into this.

Here is another striking example of the misleading similarity between comply and complicated: the almost identical words accomplish and accomplish have very different origins: accomplish is related to comply, while accomplice belongs with complicated.

And finally, another amusing coincidence: ply in Latin means "to fold" in English. In the other direction, the unrelated English suffix -fold, as in twofold corresponds to the Latin suffix -plus, as in duplus ("double, twofold"), which is unrelated but looks very similar to the Latin -ply!

Friday, July 3, 2009


Implore, explore, deplore; these three words clearly share a root but have very different meanings. What can this -plor- root mean? gives several related meanings for the Latin word plōrāre: "to lament; to cry out; to wail". Thus to deplore something is to lament its existence. To implore that someone do something is to request it piteously, all full of tears.

Where does explore fit in? suggests that in this case -plor- means "to cry out, prob. orig. with reference to hunting cries". Thus it seems that explore harks back to adventurous hunting expeditions. Perhaps in ancient times that was one of the main reasons to venture beyond familiar lands.

Friday, June 26, 2009


I got to wondering about the derivation of succumb, and discovered some interesting connections and meanings.

Succumb is suc- + cumb. Suc- is a form of the common prefix sub-, while sub- is derived from the Latin verb cubāre, meaning "to sit or lie down". Thus you succumb to your enemy when he has worn you down to the point where you are forced to lie down before him.

This root turns up in some other words too. To incubate something is literally to sit on it. An incumbent is a person currently sitting in the metaphorical chair of office. Concubine comes straight from Latin concumbere, "to lie together".

I felt sure that encumber would also belong to this family, but according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, encumber derives from Latin combrus, "barricade or obstacle".

Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I was recently exposed to the word horripilation, meaning "a bristling of the hair on the skin from cold, fear, etc." The -pil-, I assumed meant "hair", as in depilation ("removal of hair"), and indeed the Latin pilus means "hair".

I noticed that the horr- at the beginning of horripilation looked a lot like the horr- in the words horror, horrify, horrible, or horrid. Was there a connection? Yes: it turns out that Latin horrēre means "to bristle with fear"; thus, horri-pil-ation means, "a bristling of the hair".

So we have arrived at a deeper understanding of the horr- words: for example, something is horrifying if it causes your hair to stand up ("bristle").

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Miscellaneous sounds like it has a Latin root, but which one(s) is not immediately obvious. After some thought I came up with misc- meaning, I guess, "mix", as in miscible (two fluids are miscible if they will mix, or immiscible if, like oil and water, they won't). It sounds like the English mix may in fact be descended from that root too. Let's check and see if this is right...

So according to the American Heritage Dictionary miscellaneous comes from the Latin miscellus, "mixed". This comes from the verb miscēre, to mix.

Searching about suggests that all these words descend from this root: miscellaneous, miscible, miscegenation; also the French melee (mixed-up combat) and mélange (a mixed collection, a miscellany); also meddle (through Old French->Middle English). It seems that mix itself evolved somewhat differently from the rest, deriving from the Latin mixtus, the past participle of miscēre, which eventually arrived in Middle English as mixt/mixed, from which mix was derived as a back-formation.

Altogether this is a broader family of words than I would have guessed!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


I thought prehensile just meant "able to be bent at any point in its length" -- a monkey's tail is prehensile, but apparently it specifically means "adapted for seizing, grasping, or taking hold of something." What is the root?

Apparently it comes from Latin prehendere "to grasp, to seize," related to hedera "ivy" (ivy clings to things).

I hadn't realized it, but this root is also present in words like apprehend or comprehend: to apprehend a criminal is literally to "seize" him and to comprehend an idea is literally to "grasp" it.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Italics comes from "Italy". Why is that? Apparently an Italian guy wrote that way:

"from L. italicus "Italian;" so called because it was introduced in 1501 by Aldus Manutius, printer of Venice (who also gave his name to Aldine), and first used in an edition of Virgil dedicated to Italy. Earlier (1571) the word was used for the plain, sloping style of handwriting, as opposed to Gothic. Italicize "to print in italics" (for emphasis, etc.) is from 1795." (Online Etymology Dictionary)