Archives for posts with tag: Etymology

Mothercare store front

I was at my mother’s house in England the other day, casting an eye over all the toys we had as kids, which she has saved of course, and which her grandkids now enjoy.

I came across the edge of a toy package from Mothercare. This company has been around for ages and is clearly a highly respected name in anything to do with children. I love the identity – which I think the company has now moved away from – with the little child image literally under the protection of the m of mother.

What struck me for the first time that I can remember was how outdated the name was; the actual words mother and care put together to make a new name, as many company and product brands do. Back when Mothercare came into being, parenthood was possibly the almost exclusive preserve of the female parent, and that’s simply not the case any more.

The funny thing is, and I feel this about many household names and brands, we never question the name. We see the word mothercare and we equate it with a parenting brand for children. This is what a brand does to us. We rarely take the name out of context, deconstruct it, before realising that it’s perhaps not as appropriate as it used to be.

I think there are lots of examples of this, brands that we take for granted because they’re much more than the sum of their words. Lots of them, hiding in plain sight.

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One of the joys of having studied Latin and Greek at school and college is that sometimes you know what a word is even though you’ve never seen or heard it before, even if it’s on its own with no guiding context.

The example I always used to give was ‘autobiography’, composed of 3 Greek words: auto, meaning self; bio, meaning life; and graphy, meaning write. That’s an easy one though! Prepositions can give excellent clues as to what sense to make of compound words. To digress for one moment: the word preposition itself, somewhat deliciously, also contains a preposition. Anyway, take a Latin word like fero, meaning carry. It gives you all manner of compound words like infer, transfer, offer, differ and so on.

There must be a hundred prepositions in use; they’re jolly handy. Most of them give obvious clues, like inter of international – between, trans of translate – across, with the juicy bonus of the ‘late’ part being from the same root word as fero, and tele of television – also across.

I thought I’d share a few others with you that are perhaps less obvious and more obscure.

Epi (Greek for on as in on top of), which helps with the words epitaph, epigram, epidermis.

Peri (Greek for around), giving us the fabulous peripatetic, periphrastic and – unlucky for some usually in this context – peridontal. See how the second half of the word stays with the Greek and uses dontal for tooth, rather than the Latin dental? Cool isn’t it?

Ante (Latin for before, not to be confused with Anti which is against), giving us antediluvian, antecedents and anteater – just kidding about the last one…

Cata (Greek for down), hints at the meaning of catalogue, catastrophe and, somewhat uncomfortably I would imagine, catheter.

Cum (Latin for with), giving us a host of words beginning with co-, like collusion, convention, composition, colloquial and so on.

Ultra (Latin for beyond), leading to ultrasonic and loads of aspirational business product and service names like ultraflex.

The classical scholars among you will have noted that many ancient prepositions have multiple meanings in English. I have, for this post however, tried to stay with the main meanings. You could also make the argument, and be on pretty solid ground, that for every example I’ve given there are as many others where the preposition means something else.

It’s simply a guide. The only way is to immerse yourself in the language(s) and you’ll be the richer for it :-).