linguistics and lexicography Love English

Etymology bites back

© PHOTOALTOWe’ve all been offered a ‘morsel’ of something – pie, cake, or some other food perhaps – or we may have received a morsel of praise for being the person who offered it. But unless you’re etymologically inclined, you might not have stopped to wonder where the word comes from, and it’s a lot less common nowadays than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. So here’s a morsel of word history.

Morsel, in case it’s unfamiliar, refers to a small piece of food, or, per Macmillan Dictionary’s secondary sense, ‘a small amount of something, especially something good, contained in something else’. It’s quite a formal or old-fashioned word which, like many food-related items, entered English via Old French, whose morsel was, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘diminutive of mors “a bite”, from Latin morsus “biting, a bite,” neuter past participle of mordere “to bite”’.

It makes sense that morsel ultimately comes from an old Latin word for biting, but the same root can be found more obliquely in other modern English words. When we describe someone as having mordant wit – meaning their humour tends towards the critical and even cruel – we are really describing their wit metaphorically as biting. Mordant can also refer to a type of dye or corrosive liquid, or again adjectivally in related senses.

The more common word remorse, as you may now guess, literally means to bite back, from re- added to our Latin friend mordere. We might not be accustomed to thinking of remorse as a metaphor, but in a broad sense it is – like depend it tucks a physical idea into an abstract one. Remorse is the feeling of our conscience gnawing at us. There was also once a verb remord, meaning ‘feel remorse’, ‘afflict with remorse’, etc., but it is archaic and hasn’t been in popular use for centuries.

Going back still further, to Proto-Indo-European, we reach the hypothesised root form mer-, meaning ‘rub away’ or ‘harm’, which through various routes gave rise to such words as morbid, nightmare, and mortgage (literally ‘dead pledge’). The connections to morsel, though, are unconfirmed.

Morsel was the Old French word that English borrowed, but in modern French morceau is the term used for a bit, bite, piece or fragment. There’s also the verb morceler ‘divide up, break up’ and its related noun morcellement and adjective morcelé ‘scrappy, broken up’. The adjective mordant appears in French too, with essentially the same meaning as in English – though there may be a morsel of difference.

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Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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