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Word roots and routes: root

© CreatasThis is the first of a series of posts in which I will explore some of the ‘roots‘ and ‘routes‘ of English vocabulary. By ‘roots’, I mean the basic elements that embody the meanings of words. This use of root is, of course, metaphorical; to use a different metaphor, you could say that roots are the building blocks of English words. By ‘routes’, I mean the journeys that words have taken through time and space, changing their meanings, spellings and pronunciations along the way. I hope this will give you insights into English vocabulary which will help you:

1 understand some of the new words you encounter.
2 understand more about how words are constructed, and why they mean what they do mean.
3 see connections between apparently unrelated words.
4 (depending on which other languages you know) discover hidden similarities between words in English and other languages.

What better place to start, then, than with the words root and route?

These two words are homophones: they have the same pronunciation but different spellings and different meanings. The root of a plant is (normally!) the part that grows under the ground, and root is similarly used for the part of a hair, tooth or nail under the skin. Root is also used metaphorically to mean the origin of something, e.g. the root of a problem. If a plant or an idea or belief takes root, it begins to grow. If you put down roots somewhere, you become part of a community, just like a plant which establishes itself by putting down roots. A rootless person, in contrast, has no such strong connections, and moves around from one place to another. Root is also used as a verb, and rooted as an adjective, e.g. a deeply rooted belief.

The verb root meaning “search for something by putting your hand deep into a place and pushing things around” conjures up the image of searching in the soil around the roots of a plant, although it actually has a different source; it originally means what animals do when they search for food by pushing with their nose.

Root vegetables, such as carrots, are those whose roots are eaten. Another example is radish: this contains the Latin root rad-, which is cognate with the Germanic root, and which also appears in radical and eradicate. A radical change, for example, was originally a return to the roots of an idea, but now radical has broader meanings of new, different, unusual, fundamental, extreme etc, depending on the nouns it collocates with, and a radical is someone who believes that great political or social changes are necessary. Radical is the basis of a word family which includes radicalize, radicalism and radically.

Rad– also appears in the verb eradicate (noun: eradication). The affix e- means out, and this verb originally meant to pull out by the roots, but is now only used in the metaphorical sense of “find something bad or illegal (such as a disease or a criminal practice) and get rid of it”, in the hope that if there are no roots left, it can never grow again. The combination e + rad has an exact parallel (though in reverse order) in the synonym root out.

To express the literal meaning of pulling a plant, including its roots, out of the ground, you can use root up or uproot; the latter also has the metaphorical sense of making someone leave their home and move away, often as a consequence of war or natural disaster. In this sense it is also used intransitively; if you have lived happily in one place for a long time, you might not like the idea of such a radical change as uprooting and moving somewhere else.

Next in this series: route

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Jonathan Marks

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