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Editor's Corner: Unearthing Latin Out Of English

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Vincent Valentine, MD
Links Editor-in-Chief
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

As we continue our journey to improve communication for our patients through the Links, we move from the Hellenistic influence to the language of the Roman Empire. Latin is not dead. Actually, along with Greek, Latin elements are very much alive and quite active in many English words today from speech to writing. Knowledge of Latin unveils the relics of Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes that compose much of English. A valuable resource and a must for all of us is Donald Ayers' book English Words from Latin and Greek Elements. In his book, a careful review of the Latin base or root, "spir-" means "breathe" and its web of words created with different Latin prefixes is just one of many examples that enrich our vocabulary.

In English there is no verb spire, however because of Latin we have aspire, aspirate, conspire, expire, inspire, respire, perspire and transpire. With these words, the prefixes give us an idea how these words relate to breathing. The prefix "ad-" means "to" or "toward" and from here we have the word aspire meaning to breathe toward or pant after something which can be interpreted as something we want, when we aspire. From here aspirate and aspiration become obvious. The prefix "con-" means "together with" or "in union" therefore conspire means to breathe together or has a meaning related to uniting for a specific purpose. Today, conspire has evolved with a more negative connotation, should I dare have you think of the word conspiracy.

"Ex-" means "out" therefore expire has us thinking about breathing out until it becomes our last breath. When we breathe air in and out, today we inhale and exhale. We could be inspiring and expiring while breathing, but these meanings have evolved. Halare is another Latin root referring to breathe. But today, from one's last breath expire refers to the end of time periods, such as expiration dates. However, in the pulmonary function lab we do have inspiratory and expiratory limbs of the flow volume loops. "In-" means "into" so the word inspire means to breathe in or breathe spirit or feeling into once we are motivated or inspired to accomplish a task. "Re-" means "back" or "again" and can show how respire refers to the act of breathing in and out again and again. The related verb respirate refers to artificial breathing or other kinds of ventilation. "Per-" means "through." Perspire therefore means to breathe through or it can refer to material passing through pores like sweat or vapor. "Trans-" means "across." Transpire therefore refers to breathe across. But in the 18th century, Samuel Johnson defined transpire "to escape from secrecy to notice."

It was also in the 18th century when many people believed that wet clothing and dampness in the air caused the common cold. But our enlightened Benjamin Franklin observed that sailors constantly wore wet clothing and remained healthy. After years of consideration he eventually concluded: "People often catch cold from one another when shut up together in small closed rooms, coaches, etc. and when sitting near and conversing so as to breathe in each other's transpiration." Franklin had determined that the common cold passed across from the infirmed to the healthy through the air before any knowledge of germs or viruses existed.

So, let's turn our attention to the Latin base "firm-," which means "strong" or "firm." In English we have the words firm, affirm, affirmation, affirmative, confirm, confirmation, infirm, infirmity and infirmary. The prefix "ad-" with its meaning defined earlier assimilates to "af-" before the "f" to give us the word affirm meaning a movement toward strength or firmness when we affirm something. Confirm suggests a union with what is strong or firm meaning to make firm. The Latin privative prefix "in-" gives negative meaning to the word infirm when we are not strong, sick, ill or unwell. An infirmary is a place for the infirm. The suffix "-ary" gives us the sense of a place for as in the words aviary, dictionary and vocabulary.

Donald Ayres book is replete with many devices that can only improve our vocabulary. At last, the only way I can bring this bit of a disquisition to a closure is to give you a brief glimpse of some Latin phrases that have made their way into the English vernacular. The expression ad hoc means for a specific purpose or to fill a specific need. Ad infinitum means to infinity or without limit. This essay could go on ad infinitum to the point of ad nauseam. Don't you want to just puke? A non sequitur is an inference or conclusion that doesn't follow the premises or evidence. A quid pro quo is something given in return for something else, an equal exchange and finally a sin qua non literally means without which not or something absolutely necessary or indispensable.

Disclosure Statement: the author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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