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Word roots and routes: curr-

© Getty ImagesNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

Has it occurred to you, in the course of your English studies, perhaps as you walked along a corridor in your school or university to meet someone in the concourse, what rivers, dollars, electricity, road vehicles and running have in common?

English has many words derived from the roots curr- and curs-, forms of the Latin verb run, and from its more ancient ancestors. The basic idea behind current is running. There are currents in water, and in the air, and we also say that a river runs from the mountains to the sea. We also use current to mean a flow of electricity and, even more metaphorically, a trend such as a current of opinion. Current affairs and current events are happening or ‘running’ now.

From the same source we have a courier, who runs to deliver messages as fast as possible, a corridor, and currency, money that runs around from one pocket to another.

A course is a route that things or people ‘run’ along – e.g. a watercourse, a course of events, a course of action, the course of history. For some people a course of study or a curriculum can be an obstacle course! Your curriculum vitae is the course of your life – or at least your career, and career also originates from the same ancient root meaning ‘swift movement’, as do car, chariot, carry, carriage and charge, the last three being related to the load of a vehicle running along its route.

Cursive handwriting runs uninterruptedly from letter to letter. Your cursor runs around the screen to the place where you want it. If you give a document a cursory glance, you quickly run your eye over it.

Adding the prefix con-, meaning with, yields:
concourse – literally a place where people flow from different directions and meet
concurrent – happening at the same time, like two runners running in parallel

Other prefixes produce:
precursor – someone who ‘runs ahead’ (Note the similarity with forerunner.)
excursion – literally a ‘running out’
incursion – a ‘running in’
occur – ‘run towards’

So if an event occurs, or an idea occurs to you, it runs towards you. Similarly, we run up against problems, or run into trouble.

Discourse is ‘running about’. At the risk of being too discursive, or rambling, I’ll finish with currant, curry, and curse, which look similar to the words described above, but are not related to them!

Next in this series: road, street and way

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Jonathan Marks


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