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Word roots and routes: duce, duct

© BRAND X PICTURESNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

Another productive Latin source of English vocabulary is the verb ducere (‘lead’) and its past participle stem duct-. A duke, for example (related words: ducal, duchess, duchy, dukedom), was originally a kind of ‘leader’.

Some ‘duct‘ words share the basic idea of channelling, or ‘leading’, fluids in a particular direction – e.g. duct, aqueduct, conduit; viaduct is modelled on aqueduct. A conduit can also be a tube through which electrical wires pass – not surprisingly, since we talk about an electrical ‘current’, as if electricity was a fluid; similarly, a conductor is, among other things, a substance through which electricity can be ‘led’, or can flow.

Another sense of conductor is the person who ‘leads’ or directs the performance of an orchestra or choir. (An orchestra also has a ‘leader’, the principal first violinist.)

To produce was originally to ‘lead forward’ and thus to bring into view, and it still retains this meaning along with its now more common metaphorical sense of making or creating something.

Deduce and deduct originally shared the sense of ‘leading down’ or ‘leading away’, but their meanings have diverged.

To introduce is to ‘lead in’, and the noun ‘lead-in’ is a synonym of some senses of introduction.

The verb educate contains the original meaning of ‘leading forth’, and this etymology is sometimes adduced in support of the argument that the purpose of education should be to enable children’s innate abilities to emerge and develop. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t actually provide very convincing support, since the current meanings of words have often wandered a long way from their original meanings. It would be equally possible to deduce, on etymological grounds, that a school should be a place of leisure!

It might be supposed that reduce would mean ‘lead back’, and indeed it did once, but it has left this meaning behind, and its etymology provides no support for its current meaning. Fortunately that doesn’t matter, because you know the word reduce anyway. If you don’t know the word subduction, though, awareness that sub+duct means ‘lead below’ might be conducive to remembering that a subduction zone is a region where one tectonic plate is slowly disappearing below another.

Other words in this set, with their etymological senses, include:

 abduct  lead away
 induce  lead in
seduce lead aside, astray

Notice the pattern consisting of a verb formed with duce and a corresponding noun and adjective formed with duct:

 deduce  deduction deductive
 induce  induction inductive
produce production productive
reduce reduction reductive
seduce seduction seductive

In all these cases, the stress falls on the duce or duct.

But there are also exceptions and additional forms such as the verbs ab’duct, con’duct, de’duct and in’duct, the nouns ‘conduct, conduc’tivity, in’ducement, ‘produce and ‘product and the adjective intro’ductory.

Next in this series: moon

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Jonathan Marks


  • When I first read the title of your piece, Jonathan, I read it as the Italian ‘duce’, the title given to Mussolini by his fascist followers. That comes from the Latin ‘dux’, meaning leader, as does the Venetian term ‘doge’.

  • Thanks, Liz – il Duce was actually slated for an appearance in the post, but was given the chop at the last minute. The Doge connection hadn’t occurred to me, though.

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