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Word roots and routes: tract


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

In my school maths lessons, one of the weapons I had in grappling with intractable geometrical puzzles was a plastic semicircle called a protractor. I was unaware, then, of the similarity to the much more familiar word tractor. Still less did I realize that tractor and protractor are members of a large set of English words which can trace their roots back to the Latin verb trahere (pull) and, especially, to its past participle tractus.

A tractor is simply a vehicle for pulling. A tract of land (or water) is an area which has, so to speak, been ‘pulled’ across the earth’s surface (cf a stretch of land). And tract combines with prefixes to express other metaphorical meanings:

pro- (forward) A protractor enables you, among other things, to extend (or ‘pull out’) lines at a certain angle to each other. Protracted, or long-drawn-out, negotiations go on and on.
ab(s)- (away) Abstract ideas, abstract art etc are ‘pulled away’ from reality.
ad- (to) When something attracts you, it ‘pulls’ you towards it.
con- (together) When you enter into a contract with someone, you both agree to pull together to achieve a certain goal. When muscles contract, they ‘pull together’ and become smaller.
dis- (away) When something distracts you, it ‘pulls’ your attention away. The adjective distraught is a very un-Latin derivative of distract.
ex- (out) When you have a tooth extracted … well, you know what happens, don’t you?
re- (back) When you retract something you’ve said, you take or ‘pull’ it back, and when you retreat from a situation you pull back or withdraw from it.

The treat in retreat is an alternate form of tract, which also appears in treaty and treatise. (Note the similarity between a treaty and a contract.) Treating something is, etymologically, pulling or handling it. An intractable problem is one that sits where it is and refuses to be ‘pulled’ in any direction.

A train is literally something ‘pulled’ along, whether by steam, diesel or electric traction. Cynical, long-suffering train travellers (like me!) will find it significant that train was originally, long before the days of railways, used in the sense of a delay – cf protracted above.

The sense of training someone to do something originates in training or ‘pulling’ a plant to grow in a particular direction.

Other members of this set include trace, trail, trait, detract, subtract, portray, portrait.
Beware of different stress patterns – eg:

verb  noun adjective
 abstract  abstract, abstraction  abstract
 attract  attraction  attractive
 contract  contract, contraction, contractor  contractual
 distract  distraction  distracting
 extract  extract, extraction
 retract, retreat  retreat, retraction  retractable

If you read the previous post in this series, you’ll find many similarities between Latinate tract and Germanic draw, drag, draft, draught. I used to assume that they could be traced back to a common Indo-European origin. Disappointingly, it seems there’s actually no evidence for this. But it’s still an attractive idea!

Next in this series: spire

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Jonathan Marks

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