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'Gregarious' and 'Ruminate' Share Beastly Origins

Rob Kyff on

Whenever a minister speaks of a congregation as a "flock" -- the last time this happened, by the way, was 1958 -- we discover a clue to the origin of the word "congregation."

The Latin noun "grex" meant "herd, flock," and this root (usually changed to "greg") survives in several English words denoting an accumulation or collection.

"Congregate," for instance, combines "greg" with the prefix "com-" (with), and thus means "to form a group with others." By contrast, "segregate" combines "greg" and the prefix "se-" (without), and thus means "to form a group without others, to exclude others."

Likewise, the adjective "gregarious," meaning "sociable, outgoing," is derived from the Latin "gregarius" ("of or relating to the herd or flock"). "Gregarious" was first applied to animals that got along well with one another (except when feeding) but, by the 1700s, was being applied to people as well (except when driving).

The adjective "egregious" ("out of the herd or flock") originally meant "prominent, distinguished, standing out from the crowd." An "egregious minister," for instance, was a remarkably gifted one.

But, perhaps because sermons grew longer and contained fewer funny anecdotes about golf, "egregious" started to acquire the negative meaning of "conspicuously bad." In William Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," for instance, Posthumus Leonatus calls himself a "most credulous fool, egregious murtherer." And he might have added "egregious speller."

Seldom is "herd" a discouraging word, but "egregious" has become one of them.

 

Another word associated with livestock is "ruminate." Trigger warning! If you're eating breakfast right now, you may want to skip the next paragraph.

Certain animals, including sheep and cattle, chew their food for a while and then store it in special stomachs. After being partially digested, this food is brought up again for further chomping; this is known as "chewing the cud." Animals who engage in this gastronomic recycling process are called "ruminants," from the Latin word "rumen," meaning "throat, gullet."

"Rumen" gave rise to the Latin verb "ruminari," which meant "to chew the cud." But then, someone watching cows chewing their cuds was reminded of a person mulling over an idea in his mind.

Thus "ruminari" acquired the figurative meaning of "to think about something over and over again," and that's what its English derivative, "ruminate," still means. I'll give you some time to chew that over.

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

 

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