Odd couples, brothers from another mother…a bit on “false cognates.”
If you’ve ever learned another language, or even if you just dabble in serial language philandery as I do, you’ve probably come across foreign words that sound much like English words that have similar meanings, such as the English much and the Spanish mucho. These odd couples are what linguists call "false cognates" because despite appearances they aren’t actually etymologically related. Much comes to us from the Proto Indo European root meg-, which we can thank for words such as magnificent, maxim, maestro and mistress; while the Spanish mucho comes from the Latin multus (many) which comes from an obscure root of even more obscure pronunciation, ml̥tos that somehow led to words including crumbled and crumpled.
But false cognates like these happen within individual languages too, including English, more often than you might think…and in usually surprising ways.
For instance, a school of children and a school of fish seem related, but the word for a group of boisterous, smelly, slippery little ones comes through Latin and Old English, originating in a root meaning "to hold" while the term for a group of fish wended its way to us through Old Saxon and Dutch from a completely different root.
Another identically spelled, but ultimately unrelated duo is gas, as in one of the physical states of matter, and gas, as in gasoline. I was one of those children some would call annoying—unsurprisingly, some still do!—who had a hard time getting past this kind of apparent nonsense. If gas is a liquid, as it self-evidently was at the pump, then why call it gas? I’m glad I asked! The dissonance is because gas, referring to the state that is neither liquid or solid, comes (via Dutch) from the Greek Khaos, the emptiness of the world and yin to the yang that was Kosmos, or the ordered, material universe. Gas, the diminutive form of gasoline, comes from the British trade name Gasolene (with an e) that may itself have been based on the sound of the name of an early marketer of heating fuel, John Cassell.
Closer to hand, hopefully, than gas, is the odd not-couple that prompted me to start thinking about this phenomenon in the first place. As an obsessive—I mean avid—user and accumulator of both pens and pencils, I have always assumed they were an etymological couple. Not so. Pen is the contemporary English version of the Latin penna, or feather, which became associated with the writing instrument because of the feathers used to create quill pens. But the pencil, it turns out, might be the better weapon to wield against the sword. Not derived from the dainty feather, pencil instead comes from the very different Latin pēnicillum a painter’s brush, a diminutive form of the familiar sounding pēnis, though at the time this the word for a tail! I’ll leave it up to you to insert your own not-safe-for-radio joke here.
A few false cognates lie at the heart of ongoing language debates. I’ve thought a lot about what, if anything, the difference in the popular usage of the words male and female might mean. The rhetorical and linguistic aspect of those uses and their assumptions could be its own topic here some day. But there’s no question that the words male and female aren’t related in the way they might seem on the surface. The word male comes, through French, from the Latin masculus, or male human, evident in current words like masculine and, through Spanish this time, macho. Female, which is often assumed to be a modification of the word male, comes from a completely different Latin word, femella, which literally meant "she who suckles," and derives from a root that is the source of words obviously related, such as feminine and effeminate, but also fetus, affiliate and the tasty spices fennel and fenugreek.
Before I part, leaving behind what is hopefully a feeling of sweet sorrow, let me throw one more little wrench in the word-pairing works. Sorrow, that emotion which doomed Lord Byron insisted was a kind of knowledge and the real tree of life, comes from the Old English sorg, meaning grief, regret, pain and anxiety—all my favorite emotions—from an ancient root swergh-, to worry, to be be sick. Sorry, (or sore-ey as my Canadian friends like to say. A lot.) is from the very similar sounding Old English sarig "distressed, grieved, full of sorrow" from a different root sairaz, used to describe pain of either the physical or emotional kind. Which I’m taking to mean I occasionally get two expensive emotions for the price of one.
It’s unwise to put too much stock in the etymological fallacy that the historical meanings of words trumps their meanings as we currently use them. But it’s not just a matter of intellectual curiosity or amusement either, because it is increasingly obvious that our conscious and subconscious choices of words to use, often silently influenced by the reverberations of their hidden histories, is the very avenue by which our language also uses us.