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Word roots and routes: fall and case

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

Like tell and count, fall and case are a Germanic/Latin pair which have followed similar parallel routes.

Outside my window the wind’s howling, rainfall‘s turning to snowfall, nightfall‘s starting in mid-afternoon, and there’s a serious shortfall of sunshine. It’s time again to remember, when I venture out of the house, one of the pitfalls of this season: watch your step, don’t lose your footing; if you fall down on those slippery pavements, it could really be your downfall!

In its most literal sense, falling is usually an accident (see below), so it’s not surprising that so many compounds and phrases with fall refer to undesirable consequences, or a change from a more desirable to a less desirable state: fallout, fall ill, fall into disrepair, fall from favour, fall to pieces, etc. Others, however, don’t have such negative connotations: footfall, windfall, fall in love, fall into place, a fall in unemployment, etc.

This year, Christmas Day falls on a Wednesday; this illustrates an extended meaning of fall: ‘happen by chance, or by accident‘ (see also the expression fall into someone’s lap and the literary verb befall), and hints at the parallel with case and related words, which include chance and –cid– (as in accident).

Latin cadere (verb) and casus (noun) have meanings extending over falling, losing status or power, coming to an end, happening, chance, opportunity and accident, and these meanings are perpetuated in various ways in English, including:

  • falling, going down: The Occident (adjective: occidental), i.e. the West, is the part of the world where the sun goes down. The leaves of deciduous trees, unlike evergreens, fall in the autumn; hence the American name fall for the season called autumn in Britain.
  • loss of quality, power, status: e.g. decadence, decay. (Here, as in deciduous, de– = ‘down’.)
  • a state of affairs, a set of circumstances, the way things happen to be, without planning: e.g. in case, casual.
  • something (generally unwelcome) that happens unexpectedly: e.g. accident, incident, casualty. A coincidence may be welcome or unwelcome, but means, in any case, that two things happen together unexpectedly.
  • an opportunity arising: e.g. chance, occasion.

And in case you were wondering, by any chance … the word case meaning ‘container’ and its compounds such as bookcase, briefcase and suitcase are related not to the above words, but to Latin capere, meaning hold, whose other descendants include capture and captive … and, less obviously, cash, which was originally a box for keeping money in.

Next in this series: time and tide

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Jonathan Marks

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