Sunday, 22 September 2013

This one could run and run

I've been rummaging around in the giant bag of word origins and histories for some time now, and what I find never ceases to amaze me. One of the most fascinating aspects of doing this is the discovery of and investigation into derivations from the same root which have come down through time into modern English via disparate roots, or even routes.

One such set of derivations is from the Indo-European root for “run”. One came to us from Latin, either directly or through the mediation of French, and even Croatian and Hungarian. The second came initially from Gaulish, the language of ancient France, was borrowed into Latin and ended up creating a set of derivations that entered English via Latin, French and Spanish. The third and last is good old English, coming down through the ages, unmediated just like many other words from Old English, but packing a surprise in its wake.

The Latin for “run” was currere. From this we get an abundance of derivations.
  • Something which is running is literally current, though current affairs are not really carried out at a running pace. An electric current is electricity running along a wire, and running rivers have currents. Equally, something which has relevance to the present has currency, presumably including dollars, pounds and euros, though the only running they seem to do is out of my wallet.
  • From Latin cursus, a running, came course via French, firstly as a place where running takes place and later as something which runs for a time, especially in education, though not much running happens during five-course banquets. Strangely, in English a concourse is a place where people literally run together, but in other languages it means a competition. Naturally, if you run between people, you engage in intercourse, and if you do it at the same time then it's concurrent. If you need to run back to something, you have recourse to it. I suppose that if several people have recourse to concurrent intercourse on a concourse, it would be rather interesting.
  • If your writing runs along nicely, then it's cursive, and if you run past something with your eyes, you just give it a cursory look. Oh, and I'm typing all this stuff up on my trusty computer with the aid of the cursor, which is now running across the screen.
  • If you run together with someone, as we saw above, you concur. If you run into something, you might find that you incur it, like a fine or someone's anger. If you run in the way of something, something bad might occur, and if something runs again and again, it recurs.
  • Why would you run up to someone? In Roman times, it would have been to help them – hence sucurrere, help. This produced French secours, Spanish and Portuguese socorro and Italian soccorso, and the rather posh English succour. I suppose speed was of the essence when bringing help, and sauntering wouldn't quite get the job done. But what if you ran to succour someone who then tricked you and robbed you? Would you be a succour sucker?
  • Now, one very wet runner would have been a corsair, which came into English via French. It can be applied to the swift ships pirates used, or equally to the pirates themselves, though I don't suppose pirates did much running at sea.
  • So, are there any derivations from currere which still literally run around? Well, one is courier, literally runner, which we get from Italian via French, though a courier might just as easily be on two or four wheels, as on two legs. Another type of person who used to do a lot of running around was a huzzar, or hussar, and the word did a lot of running around itself. It started out the same as a corsair, but it galloped over to central Europe and found its way into Croatian, from where it cantered into Hungarian, designating a particular kind of light cavalry, and then trotted its way back to the languages of western Europe. Huzzah!
Latin was not averse to borrowing a few words from its neighbours, and one very good example is my second root word, carrus, a relative of currere, which Latin picked up from Gaulish, a Celtic language. Carrus has in turn also been quite generous to English.
  • The most obvious thing here is that the things we use which have names derived from carrus all have wheels: car, carriage and chariot. Car and carriage came via Anglo-French, thereby keeping the unchanged c-, and generally referring to the same thing, while chariot came from standard French with the initial change from c- to ch-. In any case, they're all variations on wheeled vehicles. Nowadays, we'd say a car runs smoothly. Presumably an ancient charioteer would have said the same thing about his wheels.
  • Latin produced a verb carricare from carrus, and this led to the modern verb carry. Strictly speaking then, if you carry something, you should either have it in a car, a chariot or a carriage, or you should be running with it in your hands. What you actually carried in your carriage would be cargo, which came to us from Spanish, from the verb cargar, load (for transport). What French did with carricare was to create charger, also meaning to load. After coming into English, charge has extended into a lot of other areas, getting its running feel back with the cavalry.
So we come to the last word. This one is the true English one. We can see the connection with running, with speed; yet perhaps the most fascinating thing is that in English the act of running was inextricably bound up with an animal, the animal most recognisably a runner, the animal which has lent its speed to humanity in its growth and development over hundreds of years. Of course, I can only be talking about one animal, the runner par excellence – the horse.

And this is where one ancient root echoes down the centuries, testimony to the fascinating and enduring nature of language, but also to the vagaries of history, which allow three strains which parted company so long ago to intertwine once again for real. A courier might carry his letters on a horse. A car with 1000 horsepower might run round a racecourse. Horses go with carriages, and chariots, of course. Horses for courses indeed – or should that be courses for horses? This could run and run...

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