Some English vocabulary words have followed seemingly strange paths to get to their present-day forms.   In a previous post, for instance, I discussed how the word “sovereign” was derived from the Latin word “super” through Grimm’s Law’s interchangeability of the consonants “p” and “v.”  The curious history of the word inveigle had its origin in the Latin prepositional phrase ab oculo, or “away from the eye.”  From a semantic point of view, this word origin for “inveigle” makes sense: when you are “away from” having an “eye,” you are “blind.”  When you inveigle another, you symbolically “blind” him into doing what you want even though he would rather not do so.  From a spelling point of view, however, ab oculo seems a far-fetched etymology of inveigle.  So how on Loki’s linguistic Earth did the form of the word inveigle come to be from such an unlikely starting point?

As many Latin words were wont to do, ab oculo traveled through French before coming into English, turning first into the Old French aveugler: “to blind.”  If we look closely at both ab oculo and aveugler, we can bring in two aspects of Grimm’s Law to demystify the spelling discrepancies.  The “b” of ab oculo became the “v” of aveugler, following the consonant shift from “b” to “v” described by Grimm’s Law.  So far so good.  Grimm’s Law also describes the ability of the consonant “c” of ab oculo to shift to “g;” hence, the “c” of ab oculo became the “g” of aveugler, and the mystery is unraveled.  Grimm’s Law’s consonant shifts of “b” to “v” and “c” to “g” make this transition easier to understand:

ab oculo to aveugler (note that the “-er” of aveugler is simply a French ending for the present infinitive; vowels are highly interchangeable from one language to the next–the key are the consonants)

But now something strange happens.  Aveugler moves on from Old French into Middle English as envegle.  How does the “a” capriciously turn into an “en?”  Grimm’s Law does not describe this shift.  At this point we must assume, as the linguist Skeat suggested, that in fact the shift from “a” to “en” is a corruption, that is, simply human error or an incorrect usage that passed into mainstream Middle English when first borrowed from Old French.  Words can be corrupted and thereby undergo radical spelling changes when being borrowed from one language to another.

Now that we have envegle, it is very easy to see how modern English formed inveigle.

And so there you have it: Grimm’s Law and linguistic corruption have now revealed how ab oculo became inveigle.  No longer will we be scratching our heads, or be “blind” to this most curious and fascinating set of spelling changes!


Grimm’s Law is a handy linguistic rule to know when it comes to figuring out whether words are related to one another, that is, are in the same linguistic family. Jacob Grimm, as he and his brother Wilhelm listened to different dialects as they were collecting fairy tales throughout the German countryside, noticed that particular consonants shifted from one to another, so that words which appeared to be different were actually simply variations on a theme. One of the aspects of Grimm’s Law stipulates that the bilabial (simply a consonant said or articulated by using both lips) consonants “b”, “p,” “f,” and “v” can shift between each other, representing virtually equivalent letters.

As an example of this phenomenon, let’s first take a look at words in various languages for father. The Turkish for father is baba, the Spanish is padre, the English is father, and the Dutch is vader. Although the words baba, padre, father, and vader all appear to be different at first glance, once we understand that the letters “b,” “p,” “f,” and “v” are interchangeable it is easier to see that they are all part of the same family of related words.

As a Star Warsian side note, now we can understand why Darth Vader means “Dark Father;” the “v” of the word “Vader” and the “f” of “father” are interchangeable (interestingly enough, the “d” of “Vader” and “th” of “father” are also equivalent–more on that when I post about Grimm’s Law’s dentals, or consonants spoken by pressing the tongue against the upper teeth: “t,” “th,” and “d”).

The same phenomenon happens with the word for “brother.”  The Latin for the English “brother” is frater, Italian is fratello, French is frere,  and German is Bruder, to name a few.  Also notice the dentals “d” of “Bruder,” “th” of brother, and “t” of “frater” and “fratello.”

As a second example of Grimm’s Law, many seemingly different words in English are derived from the Latin root word prob meaning “prove, test.” At first blush, if we look at the derivatives “probe,” “proof,” and “prove,” for example, they all look fairly different. However, when we apply Grimm’s Law, we understand that the “b” of “probe,” the “f” of “proof,” and the “v” of “prove” are only superficially different.  This adds an extra mnemonic beyond the etymology of the words to help us understand why these words are spelled the way they are, and how they are part of the same semantic family.  Spelling differences in morphemes are clarified by employing Grimm’s Law.

Here are some other interesting words that illustrate bilabial consonants of Grimm’s Law:

To “revel” is to carouse or party boisterously, a mild form of rebellion against established order; here the “b” of the Latin root word bell meaning “war” became the English “v” of “revel.”

The Latin word bracchitellum means “little branched or armed;” if we were not aware of Grimm’s Law, we might be very surprised to find out that the English word “pretzel” comes from bracchitellum, the Latin “b” shifting to the English “p”!  By the bye, the “c” and “ch” of bracchitellum can shift to a “z;” these are fricatives, another aspect of Grimm’s Law.

The Latin word caper means “goat,” from which the English word “cabriolet” was derived, a type of small, horse-drawn carriage that bounded about unpredictably on its springs, just like the equally unpredictable “goat” leaps about (our word “cab” is short for “cabriolet”). Here, Grimm’s Law tells us that the “p” of caper has turned into the “b” of “cabriolet,” hence making the connection much easier to understand, not to mention appreciate. After all, it just wouldn’t be right to be riding around in a “cap!”

A clef in music is the “key” which locates a particular note on a staff, giving a musician a reference point for determining where all subsequent notes lie. The English word “clef” comes from the Latin word clavis meaning, surprise, surprise, “key;” the “v” of clavis shifted to the “f” of “clef.” Grimm’s Law provides a telling “key” to see how such seemingly disparate words as “clef” and clavis are actually related.

A good way to remember that the consonants “b,” “p,” “f,” and “v” can shift between each other is this phrase: Bo-Peep’s Fleece Vendor, a mnemonic which will not only help to recall the four key bilabial consonants in this aspect of Grimm’s Law, but will also answer the age-old question of rather or not Bo-Peep found her sheep, or perhaps why Bo-Peep couldn’t find her sheep in the first place! Could this be from a long lost tale of the Brothers Grimm?

Now, test out the mnemonic with the following two linguistic puzzles (answers appear at the bottom of the blog):

The Greek word boubalos meaning “wild ox” gave us what English word?

The Greek word pyxos meaning “container” gave us what English word?

Now we need no longer be “grim” when it comes to deciphering words which are seemingly unrelated!




Answers:  a.  buffalo; b. box


Latin root words can often solve difficulties when it comes to defining similar words.  For instance, centripetal and centrifugal forces are commonly taught in physics classes, and are almost as commonly confused.  Let’s examine these two words in light of their Latin roots, which help to clarify which force is which.

Centripetal forces make an object moving in a circle “seek” the center of that circle, hence preventing the object from flying off or away from that center.  A good example of this is the moon orbiting the Earth, which is the moon’s center of motion.  The moon seeks the center and so does not fly away because of the centripetal force which acts on it,  in this case gravity.  Another example of a centripetal force is the tension in the string of a yo-yo as it is whirled about in a circle–no tension, and the yo-yo flies away.  Since both gravity and tension are real forces, centripetal forces are factual, that is, they exist in the real world.

The word “centripetal” comes from two primary Latin root words, centr: “center” and pet: ”seek”–thus a centripetal force causes an object to “seek” its “center” of motion.  The root centr has given us such words as epicenter, geocentric, eccentric, and egocentric.  The latter and in this case more telling Latin root is pet: ”seek,” which gave rise to the word “petition,” the act of “seeking” for signatures.  Other common English vocabulary words that came from this root word include competent, appetite, and repetition.

Centrifugal forces, on the other hand, seem to make those same objects flee the center of the circle (with the idea that if those objects in truth were seeking their respective centers, they would eventually crash into them); in actual fact, there is no such thing as centrifugal force, which is simply the inertia of motion.

The word “centrifugal” contains the same Latin root word centr as does centripetal, but the key root word is the Latin root fug, which means “flee.”  The Latin root word fug gave us the word fugitive, for instance, or one who has “fled.”  Other common English vocabulary words that come from the Latin root word fug are refugee, refuge, subterfuge, and fugue.  

Hence, if you can recall that the pet of centripetal means “seek” (just as a petitioner seeks signatures for her petition) and that the “fug” of centrifugal means “flee” (as a fugitive flees), you will have a forceful way of remembering these two words.    

More memory hooks for telling the difference in these two forces:

Centripetal: fact, like the “petals” of a flower exist

Centrifugal: fiction, like the solifugid, a monstrous sun spider which can grab you with its sucker front legs and bite you, or the violet fungus which, if you sit too near, can cause you the worst skin problems you’ll ever have … both of these monsters are luckily fiction, just like centrifugal force is!



Word Origins of “Sovereign” and “Allege”

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The study of word origins is one effective pathway towards understanding and retaining the meanings of English vocabulary words.  Often an origin is clear; a given Latin root, for example, will not change its spelling when it comes into English.  For instance, the Latin prefix super-: “over, above,” gave English various words, such as superfluous, [...]

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Quotes: Wisecracks to Wisdom

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One Memlet that we constantly try to improve is “Example Sentences.” One goal (among many) of this Memlet is to demonstrate that the words you learn are not exotic but are in common use in mainstream published content. Membean’s spidering tools crawl the web searching for relevant sentences across a wide spectrum of subjects – [...]

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