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Word roots and routes: route


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

A route, etymologically, starts as an indentation, or rut, made by a wheel as it breaks into the surface of the ground it travels across. The word rut goes back to the Latin past participle rupta, meaning broken, and came into English by way of Old French. A later French form of the same word gave us route, which was used initially with the meaning of a track or road, then a customary path taken by animals, and finally a fixed, regular course for transporting goods or people, plus metaphorical uses such as a route to success.

Rut retains its original sense, but is now more commonly used metaphorically; you probably like to have a certain amount of routine (a variation on route) in your life, but if you take it too far you’ll end up getting stuck in a rut.

A closely related word is rout, a disorderly retreat in which the formation of a defeated army is broken and scattered.

The Latin infinitive rumpere (‘break’) is the origin of rupture, abrupt (literally ‘broken off’), corrupt (literally ‘break completely’), disrupt (literally ‘break apart’), erupt and interrupt. The e- in erupt means ‘out’; violence breaks out, as well as erupts, though volcanoes only erupt. Inter- means ‘between’; using a slightly different image, we can break in while someone else is speaking.

The equivalent Germanic root raub-, meaning ‘break’, has followed some even more surprising pathways in English. Theft often involves breaking, or breaking into, property, and this no doubt explains how the meanings of rob and robber developed from this root. Closely related to robber, but derived via Dutch, is rover, which originally meant ‘pirate’. Most remarkably of all, robe originally meant ‘loot’, or stolen goods, but its meaning was first narrowed to stolen garments, and then broadened to clothing in general, and then narrowed again to particular types of clothing.

Other apparently related words, although the relationship is not quite clear, are rubbish and rubble; they certainly include the meaning of ‘broken’.

The final port of call on this long and winding route is the word rote. The idea of learning by rote seems to have a lot in common with routine, but it seems that there is actually no etymological connection between the two. Nevertheless, the resemblance, superficial though it may be, might be helpful in recalling the word and its meaning without needing to resort to rote learning.

Next in this series: curr

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Jonathan Marks

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