Latest Issue

Gentle Genteel Gentiles: Dealing with Dandy Doublets

Ever notice that English seems to have too many words for stuff?

Think of all the synonyms for angry … or fool … or great … and the 2000-plus terms for drunk, some of which we covered in our last installment of “Weird Words.”

One reason for this is that English is a melting-pot of vocabulary borrowed from dozens of other tongues — and this includes a little-known phenomenon called the doublet.

I felt this 22nd entry of “Weird Words” might be an apt time to talk about that!

A doublet involves synonym-sets that do not merely mean the same thing, but which also look and sound alike — for instance, shade and shadow; regal and royal; and even more redundant pairs like fire and pyre, or frantic and frenetic.

A doublet usually occurs when a single Latin root gave us two or more different terms; one entered English directly from Latin, while the other went first to a different tongue and then came to English from there.

For instance, the Latin frag (meaning to break) gave us fragile; but it also went to Old French, where it lost the G and became fraile. English then acquired the almost-identical frail from French as well. To put it simply: Two words from the same source, by different routes. (Note that this is not the same as the better-known cognate, which involves similar words in different languages — for instance, cat [English], chat [French] and gato [Spanish].)

There are hundreds of doublets, several of which belie their name with three, four or even more related terms. And it isn’t always clear how these sets of “doublets” relate in meaning.

Below are samples; but, because of the many interesting English doublets and the occasional necessity for explanations, I will (appropriately) split my discussion into a pair of articles — one this week, and one next.

A few of the clearer pairs include slander and scandal; corn and kernel; pate and paste; ship and skiff; and compute and count.

Pipe and fife have a clear connection in meaning but not so much in sound — unless you note that P and F are both made with lips. (Which may explain the F-sound in words like phone and phobia.)

Less understandably, there’s a group of doublets in which the G and W sounds got switched: guard and ward; guardian and warden; warranty and guarantee; and gallop and wallop. (On that last: maybe fast-moving hooves make a “wallop” on the ground?) In any case, we might as well throw in the much-more-obvious yard and garden here as well.

Chamber and camera are doublets, which makes sense if you know that the latter is shortened from camera obscura, literally “dark room.”

Another instance that benefits from explanation is the double-pair feat and fact, both having the sense of something sure, done or accomplished. The Latin base fac(t), meaning “to make,” has given us factory, facility and manufacture; in fact (ha ha), since it can also be spelled fec(t) or fic, literally hundreds of English words come from this: efficient, affect, benefactor, confectionary, suffice and so on.

For this week, let’s finish with a few doublets for which there are more than two examples.

Short, shirt and skirt are doublets, as are hotel, hostel and hospital (all places for a short stay). Then there’s a set of four terms referring to something thin and flat: disc, dish, desk and dais.

Another quartet is gentle, genteel, Gentile and jaunty, where the connection between the first pair is clear, but not so much with the other two!

Among the most fascinating instances: The rare word chattel (meaning goods or possessions, as in Chapter One of To Kill a Mockingbird) is a doublet of capital and cattle — the latter because a family’s farm animals often represented the majority of their “capital.” (In this way, the financial term “stock” — as in Wall Street — may be related to livestock.)

My thanks for help here to the Wikipedia “Doublet” entry, plus the fine old text English Words from Latin and Greek Elements (Ayers and Worthen), which I used for years with my students at Loyalsock.