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Word roots and routes: pair

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

Pair (noun and verb) has made its way to us from Latin pār, meaning ‘equal’. As well as describing a set of two identical or near-identical items – e.g. a pair of shoes, a pair of eyes – it is also used for certain single items consisting of two symmetrical or similar parts which are physically joined together – e.g. a pair of trousers, a pair of glasses, a pair of scissors; in many languages, the names of these items are simple singular nouns.

Pair also forms the phrasal verbs pair off and pair up.

Par itself is used in a number of phrases in which it means the usual or expected standard: below par, under par, not up to par, on a par with, par for the course.

Parity means equality, especially in certain legal, financial and scientific contexts. The Latin phrase primus inter pares – first among equals – is sometimes used in English.

Your peers are the people who are the same age as you, or who are in the same social or professional group; peer group and peer pressure are common compounds with peer, and contributors to journals will also be familiar with the term peer review. Someone or something that is peerless is the best – i.e. has no equal. In the UK, a peer is also, rather surprisingly, a member of a high social class who has a title such as Lord – in other words, someone is not at all equal to the majority of the population or who is, perhaps, ‘more equal than others’; the term was originally applied to such people because they were equal to each other in status.

To compare was originally to couple or match, or bring together; its derivatives include comparison, comparative, comparatively, comparable, comparably, incomparable, incomparably.

To disparage (derived noun: disparagement) was originally to lower in rank or degrade. Disparate has a different origin, but its meaning has also been influenced by association with dispar- ‘unequal’ and therefore different.

The word umpire – historically someone who is not the equal of others can therefore be neutral in deciding in disputes between them – has reached us after taking a wrong turning on its route through the ages. In the 14th century it was noumper, from French nonper, meaning not equal, but a century later it had become oumpere, as a result of the mistaken division of a noumpere as an oumpere. (There are other words, such as adder, apron and nickname, with similar histories.)

The noun peer and the verb peer (look carefully) are homonyms; they just happen to have the same pronunciation and the same spelling, but they are not related.

Pair, pear and pare are homophones, and so are peer and pier; they have the same pronunciation but different spellings and, of course, different meanings.

Next in this series: band, bend, bind

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Jonathan Marks

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