Word roots and routes: tractPosted by Jonathan Marks on February 24, 2014
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.
|contract||contract, contraction, contractor||contractual|
|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!
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