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Word roots and routes: scribe

© Photodisc / Getty Images / Steve ColeNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

A scribe was someone whose job was to copy documents and books before the invention of printing; the word is now sometimes used humorously to refer to a writer, and especially a journalist. However, English has an extensive set of words derived from the Latin verb scribere (‘write’ or ‘draw’) and its neuter past participle scriptum, with the addition of some of the usual range of prefixes.

So, for example, to circumscribe (circum = around) something is literally to draw a line around it, and thus to limit or restrict it. To transcribe is literally to ‘write across’, and inscribe to ‘write in’, while to describe was originally to ‘write down’.

To subscribe is literally to ‘write below’. When you subscribe to a magazine – i.e. when you take out a subscription to it – your name is added to the existing list of subscribers (although probably not at the bottom of the list!), and if you subscribe to an idea or opinion, it is as if you add your name to the list of people who already support the idea. If you want to be taken off an internet mailing list you can often unsubscribe with a click of your mouse, but you might find it more difficult to unsubscribe from an opinion you have expressed!

Prescribe and proscribe can easily be confused with each other, but they have almost opposite meanings: to prescribe something is to say that it should happen, whereas to proscribe something is to denounce or prohibit it.

In Britain, at least, unclear handwriting is  a characteristic traditionally ascribed to doctors. Doctors’ prescriptions are now printed by computer, but in the old days doctors were notorious for writing them in an indecipherable scribble.

A manuscript was originally, unlike a typescript, a handwritten text (just as something manufactured was made by hand, or manually). The scriptures of a religion are its sacred writings. Conscription is the process of making people join the armed forces, and someone who has been conscripted is a conscript.

Notice that the verbs in this set of words are generally formed with –scribe and the nouns and adjectives with –script-:

verbs nouns adjectives
de’scribe de’scription de’scriptive, scripted, unscripted, nondescript
in’scribe in’scription
pre’scribe pre’scription pre’scriptive
sub’scribe sub’scription
tran’scribe ‘transcript, tran’scription





The verb con’script (a back formation from con’scription) is an exception, and script itself is both a noun and a verb, as is scribble.

The modern spellings and pronunciations of some of these words result from the practice of remodelling English in order to make it comply with Latin. Script was borrowed in the form scrite from Old French escrit, which had lost the Latin p, but p was later inserted in order to make the original Latin etymology clear. Similarly, describe was borrowed from Old French as descrive, and b was later substituted for v in order to give the word a Latin pedigree.

PS A postscript is something ‘written after’.

Next in this series: duce/duct

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Jonathan Marks

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