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Word roots and routes: voice

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

When I was growing up in the early to mid-sixties I took every possible opportunity to watch the Beatles when they appeared on the telly. They came up with an inexhaustible supply of new songs, and they wore different gear on different occasions, but one thing was always the same: the Vox amplifiers they used.

I didn’t know then (and neither did the Beatles, perhaps, although the founders of the Vox company presumably did!) that vōx is Latin for voice or sound. It’s used in the expression vox pop, an abbreviated form of vox populi (the voice of the people), and is the source of voice, vocal / vocalist, vociferous and vowel.

The related Latin verb vocāre, meaning call, has also provided English with quite a few words, including vocabulary – a reminder that language is originally a spoken phenomenon, even if we tend to use a wider range of vocabulary in writing than in speaking.

A vocation is also a calling; some people feel such a strong attraction to a certain career that it seems as if a voice is calling them to do it. This meaning is watered down in the adjective vocational; a vocational course equips you with the skills you need to do a job – even if you don’t hear that voice calling to you!

The word convocation is used for some kinds of formal meeting in which people are called together (con + voke = together + call).

Sometimes you hear, see, smell, taste or read something that evokes a certain feeling, emotion or image from your memory or experience; e + voke is literally out + call, as if the stimulus calls out a reaction from a place where it was hidden (adjective: evocative, noun: evocation).

One meaning of invoke is to call upon the help of a deity (e.g. invoke divine protection). By extension, invoke also means to call upon a law, or idea, or person to support you in an opinion, or decision, or action.

To provoke (pro + voke = forth + call) is to cause, or try to cause, a reaction, especially an angry one (adjective: provocative, noun: provocation).

And to revoke (officially say that something is no longer legal) is literally to call back an earlier decision (re + voke = back  +call). An irrevocable decision is one which can’t be changed, or called back.

I’m still a Beatles fan – mainly because I still like their music, but partly, I suppose, because it evokes memories of a happy, irrevocable past.

Next in this series: grade

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Jonathan Marks

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