If It's Fragile, It will Break (Naturally)
By Phil Baldi, Pennsylvania State University
No language in human history has incorporated as many foreign elements into its structure as has English. In fact, if anyone ever took the time to count all the words in an
unabridged dictionary of English, the counter would discover that about 75% of the words are of foreign origin. This kind of heavy borrowing has been going on for well over a
thousand years, all the way back into the period of Old English (customarily dated from ca. 700-1100 CE), and reaching its height during the period after the Norman Conquest,
which began in 1066 CE. It was at this time that English started to become inundated with vocabulary from French and Latin, much of which survives in the language today. Many
times, this kind of borrowing and reborrowing leaves all sorts of strange etymological partners in the language.
Take the word "break", for example. "Break" is a native English word, which is to say that it can be traced all the way back to the ultimate linguistic ancestor of English,
Proto-Indo-European, where it's reconstructed as *bhreg-. The word exists elsewhere in the Indo-European family of languages, but for our purposes the interesting remnant of *bhreg- is in Latin, where it develops into the
word "frangere" 'to break', which in some forms appears as "frag-", without the "n". Latin/French forms of this word have been incorporated into English in many forms, which now
stand alongside the native English word "break". For example, "fragile" and "frangible" are Latin/French equivalents of the native "breakable". Also, "fraction", "fragment",
"fracture", "refract" and a whole list of other words which reflect the Latin "fra(n)g-".
A really interesting one is the form "suffragette", a female advocate of voting rights for women (i.e. "suffrage"). Most people who have ever thought about this word would
probably connect it with "suffer" in the sense of "endure". But in fact it's from Latin "suffragium" (i.e. suf-frag-ium) 'a voting tablet', which probably got its name because
people used a broken piece of tile to cast their ballot. So there you have it: "break", "fragile", "frangible", "fraction" and even "suffrage" all from the same ultimate source
(*bhreg-) their connections concealed by their different forms in different languages.
More Baldi: Latin in English, Part I >