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Word roots and routes: grade and gress

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

Some previous posts in this series have dealt with routes, roads and running; this one follows the same general theme, but at a walking pace.

The vocabulary of English contains many extended word families with Latin ancestry. One such family includes words based on the roots grade and gress, dating back to the Latin noun gradus (step) or the related verb gradī (walk, step, go) and its past participle gressus.

The words on the grade side of the family mostly have meanings connected with steps on a horizontal or vertical scale. If your grades are satisfactory, you’ll graduate and be awarded a degree – a step up on the academic ladder. (Curiously, the root meaning of degree is actually a step down.) Other grade words include gradation, gradient, gradual (note the similarity with step by step, and one step at a time). A retrograde step is a step backwards; strictly speaking, the step is already included in the adjective retrograde.

Degraded has various meanings, but they all include the idea of the quality of something being reduced to a lower grade. If something or someone is upgraded, their status or functionality is improved, and if something or someone is downgraded, their status or rank is reduced. Ingredients, finally, are simply the things that go into a recipe.

The gress words generally refer to metaphorically moving on a horizontal plane and, as usual, prefixes indicate direction. So when you progress, you are metaphorically walking forwards (note the similarity with a step forward(s) and a step in the right direction) but when you regress you take a step backwards. A congress is literally a coming together, or meeting. When you digress, you step aside from the topic you are talking or writing about, and when you transgress, you metaphorically step over a border into a place where you are not supposed to go. Aggression has the basic meaning of stepping towards someone, but has, obviously, developed a more specialised meaning.

That covers the most familiar members of this word family, but there are others … As a very young schoolgirl, my mother went on a trip to a zoo with her class. At the end of the visit, the teacher led the pupils past a sign reading ‘to the egress’, and my mother wondered what sort of animal an egress could be. (A female eagle, perhaps?) Imagine her disappointment when it turned out that egress is just an unusual word for way out!

Next in this series: tell and count

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Jonathan Marks

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