All Tied Up in Etymology

The day was heating up. Or was it just me? I would be meeting Bugsy “Murder is My Business” Beetlebaum in a few hours. But I wasn’t sweating it. I just had to tie up a few loose ends, etymologically.

Latin distringĕre was the source of distress and distrain, which lost their first syllables to become stress and strain. But if distringĕre was also the source of district, why didn’t the OED show it as the source of all those other words like restrain and restrict?

I played a hunch. Aha. Latin also had the word Latin stringĕre. Maybe distringĕre lost a syllable too. Distringĕre and stringĕre both mean ‘to tie, bind, etc.’ And when I searched for stringĕre in the OED Online’s “etymology” field — Jackpot!

Stringere is the source of:

Constrain ‘to severely restrict the scope, extent, or activity of’

Strait ‘a narrow passage of water connecting two seas or two large areas of water’

straits ‘a situation characterized by a specified degree of trouble or difficulty’

Straitjacket ‘a strong garment with long sleeves that can be tied together to confine the arms of a violent prisoner or mental patient.’

Strict originally, ‘drawn or pressed tightly together; tight, close,’ now, ‘demanding               total obedience or observance’ with no wiggle room, as you might say

Stricture ‘a restriction on a person or activity’

String ‘a line, cord, thread’

Stringent ‘astringent, constrictive, styptic, esp. with reference to taste’ or ‘of regulations, procedure, requirements, obligations, etc.: Rigorous, strict, thoroughgoing; rigorously binding or coercive’

Of course, there were also restrain and restrict with the re- prefix meaning ‘back.’

Straight is etymologically unrelated, though. It comes from Middle English, the past participle of strecchen ‘to stretch.’ So, though it’s become acceptable to spell strait-laced (meaning tightly cinched like Scarlett O’Hara willing her waist down to 18 inches with the help of a corset) and (the redundant phrase) strait and narrow as “straight-laced” and “straight and narrow,” that’s a stretch.

Well, I was glad to have that etymology neatly tied up. Hmm. Why do we like to tie up the loose ends in English, while the French find a more satisfying conclusion in the ‘untying’ or dénouement?

Illustrations: Ropes by J.B. Herman; Corset LACMA

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Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper is a blog about words and their origins at WordSnooper.com.
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2 Responses to All Tied Up in Etymology

  1. I noticed that the American Heritage Dictionary sees stress as resulting from a mixture of two tightly related Old French words: “partly from destresse (from Old French; see distress), and partly from Old French estrece, narrowness, oppression (from Vulgar Latin *strictia, from Latin strictus, past participle of stringere, to draw tight; see strait).”

  2. Yes, the OED tells the same story. Apparently Latin stringere bifurcated in Old French and coalesced in English.

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