Fragile Dishes

In a previous post (“Ships and Shirts”, posted 28 March 2022), I examined some words which have entered English at two (or more) different times. Both “ship” and “shirt” go back to Old English and derive, through regular laws of sound change, from words in Proto-Germanic; “skipper” and “skirt” also go back to Proto-Germanic, but these forms were borrowed from North Germanic, which kept the hard “sk” sound that the West Germanic languages, such as English, had changed to “sh”, so “shirt” and “skirt” are close relatives, as are “shipper” and “skipper”. Etymologists often refer to pairs such as “shirt” and “skirt” or “shipper” and “skipper” as doublets, but there are also triplets and quadruplets and…..

As a general rule, if a word has come into English more than once, the related forms will have different meanings. So “shirt” and “skirt” derive from the same Proto-Germanic word, which probably meant something like “a short garment”, but shirts and skirts in English are different articles of clothing. If the words didn’t have different meanings, there would be no point in having both of them. Doublets are a handy way to expand the vocabulary with words that are etymologically related but which have entered English at different times or through different routes. In this post I want to look at a few more examples of etymological relatives.

I. The English word “fragile” comes directly from a Latin adjective, “fragilis” which, conveniently enough, means “fragile”. This adjective is in turn derived from the verb “frango, frangere”, which means “to break”. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for this word in the sense “liable to break” comes from Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens”, but in the sense “liable to fall into sin” there’s a citation from 1512.

Meanwhile, French carried the word over from Latin into Old French and into Modern French. Latin words in French generally overgo some changes which can make the relationships less than obvious—for instance, the loss of consonants, particularly in the middles of words. In this case, the Latin “fragilis” lost the “g”; in Old French the word was spelled “fraile” or “frele”, and it turns up in Modern French as “frêle”, which my French dictionary defines as “frail” or “weak”. The French word “frêle” is thus a descendent of Latin “fragilis”, handed down (if a sound made by the mouth is handed down) from generation to generation as Latin gradually became French. This word came into English as “frail”, and the earliest citation in the OED is from 1382, somewhat earlier than the direct borrowing of “fragile” from Latin. French also borrowed the word from Latin as the adjective “fragile” and the related noun “fragilité”; these words weren’t handed down from generation to generation but found in a Latin book and borrowed.

To sum up, the French word “frêle” is not a borrowing from Latin, but a direct descendant of the Latin “fragilis” in the form of (very) Late Latin that we call Old French and then into Modern French, with the loss of the “g”, whereas the French “fragile” is a learned borrowing from Latin, keeping the “g”. The English “frail” is a borrowing from Old French, and the English “fragile” is a borrowing from Latin.

I’ve mentioned the general principle that if a root word shows up in more than one form, there is usually some difference in meaning. To my ear, the words “fragile” and “frail” do have different meanings. The word “fragile” is applied primarily to objects, such as glass or pottery, which can be broken into pieces. When it’s applied to a person it usually refers to a psychological breakability, at least as I hear it used. The word “frail” is more easily applied to people, and it usually refers to physical weakness, so an old person might be frail, but in an extended sense it can also include other kinds of weakness, including moral weakness. Ordinarily I wouldn’t say that an object is frail. You would paste a “FRAGILE” sticker on a box of glassware, but I’ve never seen a “FRAIL” sticker.

(Some related words: “fragment”, “fraction”, “fractious”, and “fracture”. Latin “frango” and Germanic “break” both go back to the Proto-Indo-European *bhr(e)g-”, but that’s another story for another post.)  

II. In Modern English, the word “discus” usually refers to an object thrown in an athletic contest; one of my dictionaries defines it as a “quoit”, which is fine if you know what a quoit is. (A quoit, according to the dictionary, is shaped in a ring, so it’s not really the same as a discus.) The Oxford English Dictionary defines a discus as “a heavy thick centred disc thrown in ancient and modern athletic sports”. I will assume that you know what a discus is, so I won’t bother further with definition. The first citation of “discus” in the OED dates from 1581, and the Dictionary says the word is borrowed from Latin, but Latin borrowed it from the Greek word δίσκος, spelled “discos” in Roman letters. In any case, it’s a relatively modern word in English.

The word “disc” or “disk” (both spellings are acceptable) is a short form of “discus”, and the first definition of “disk” in the OED is “a discus”, but “disk” and “discus” are not synonyms: a discus is a disk, but a disk is not necessarily a discus. A disk can be a phonograph record, for those who still use them; a disk jockey is someone who plays a program of pop songs, not necessarily on disks. The words “discotheque” (“a club where people dance to recorded music”) and “disco” (“a style of music or dancing”) also derive from this meaning of disk. A disk can also be a computer disk, though this meaning may be obsolete, or at least obsolescent.

A disk can be pretty much anything that’s the right shape, or even appears to be the right shape. For instance, the shape that the sun or the moon or a planet presents to the viewer is called the disk, though the sun or the moon or a planet are balls and not disks at all. The OED lists twenty-eight different meanings for “disk”, not counting compounds, but they all have something to do with something shaped like a disk.

One common object that’s shaped liked a disk is a dish, and the word “dish” is also derived from the Greek “discus”, but in a somewhat roundabout way. In Old English the word “disk” meant “plate, bowl, platter”, and in many of the Germanic languages there are similar words, and all of these are borrowed, one way or another, from Greek, through Latin; the Old High German “tisc”, for example, meant “plate”. In some languages, the meaning has been changed slightly. In Modern German, the word “Tisch” means “table”: both a plate and a table are flat surfaces you put food on.

A table, in turn, is like a desk; the English word “desk” first appears around 1400, in Middle English, derived from Medieval Latin “desca”, which is derived from “discus”; so “dish” and “desk” are cousins.

A less obvious cousin is the word “dais”; this comes through Old French; as I noted above, French often changed Latin words by dropping letters; in this case the “c” in “discus” dropped out, leaving “deis” or “des”; this was borrowed into English around 1250. The Modern French “dais” means “canopy”; in Middle English “dais” meant “a raised table in a hall, at which distinguished persons sat at feast” and in Modern English it means “the platform in a lecture hall” or “a raised platform of any kind”. Evidently the meaning of “dais” moved from “table” to “a raised table” to “any raised surface, such as a platform”.

So we find in Modern English the septuplet “discus”, “disc/disk”, “disco”, “discotheque”, “dish”, “desk”, and “dais”, all derived ultimately from Greek, through Latin or French, and each one with a different meaning.

3 thoughts on “Fragile Dishes

  1. This is fascinating, as always, Matthew. I hope you’ll be saying more about the ways that words come into different languages in different ways and for different reasons. I’m curious about your use of a word I’m not familiar with: overgo (“Latin words in French generally overgo some changes…”). The definitions I see online give definitions for British English (to go beyond or pass by, to weigh down, to cross over or through, to get the better of, excel or exceed) that don’t seem quite right, but I’d like to know more about overgo, undergo, and any other gos you’ve got!


  2. Did I really say “overgo”? Gosh, I don’t think I have any special meaning in mind, I think it was a slip for “undergo”. But I kind of like it. I may start to use it, if I can figure out what it should mean. And why does “undergo” mean “undergo”, anyway?


    1. I like it too! Overgo seems closer to go over than undergo is to go under…and I’ve always wondered also about the difference between wrought and overwrought and why underwrought is less common…


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