May 20, 2015

Case File #015.05.20: LICORICE

The flavoring for licorice—the black kind, that is—comes from the root of a perennial Mediterranean plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra) that is related to the pea family and has blue flowers and compound pinnate leaves. (Some commercial brands of licorice are flavored instead with anise, a less costly Eurasian herb, but we're not talking about the cheap stuff here.) With that in mind, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that the noun licorice has its roots (no pun intended) in the Greek noun glukurrhiza (sometimes transliterated as glykyrrhiza), a compound formed from the Greek words glukus, meaning “sweet,” and rhiza, meaning “root.” The Greek passed into Latin as glychyrrhiza, but during the Late Latin era, the form changed to liquiritia, an alteration likely influenced by the Latin verb liquere, meaning “to become liquid” or “to dissolve,” as a reference to the way the plant root is processed in order to obtain its flavorsome extract. Old French borrowed the Late Latin noun but changed the spelling to licorece, and this later became the Anglo-French lycoryc before English speakers got their mitts on it in the early thirteenth century and transformed it into the now familiar licorice.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

May 6, 2015

Case File #015.05.06: IMPEDE

When it comes to the origins of the word impede, meaning “to slow, obstruct, or prevent the progress of (something),” etymologists are not all of one mind. Some say that the verb is a direct descendant of the Latin impedire, which literally means “to shackle the feet”—it's a combination of the prefix im-, meaning “on,” and the locative noun form pedis, meaning “foot”—but was used by Latin speakers to mean “to hinder, obstruct, or prevent.” Others, however, say impede is a back-formation from the noun impediment, meaning “a hindrance or obstruction,” and they lend credence to their claim by pointing out that the noun entered the English lexicon no later than 1400, more than two centuries before the verb came into use. (By the way, impediment was derived from the Latin noun impedimentum, which also means “a hindrance or obstruction.”) But one thing the two camps do generally agree on is this: credit for the coining of impede belongs to our old friend and prolific neologist William Shakespeare, who was apparently the first to put the verb down on paper when he used it in the first act of his play Macbeth circa 1606.

©2015 Michael R. Gates