Saturday, December 12, 2009

That Gnawing Feeling

Biting and gnawing are normal activities for creatures with teeth. Both words come from Old Teutonic forms, and both show up in print in the year 1,000. One of my favorite early titles is Ayenbite of Inwit (usually translated as The Remorse of Conscience) – literally, the Again-Bite of Inner Awareness.

The Old English words owe their existence to prior Latin words. The Latin mordere meant to bite, and it produced words such as
  • mordant (biting, caustic, incisive)
  • mordacious (biting, sharp, acerbic)
  • morsel (a bite or mouthful of food)
  • remorse (deep gnawing feeling of guilt)
  • commorse (compassion or pity, an inner gnawing)

The Latin rodere, to gnaw, led to these representative words:
  • erode (to eat away by slow consumption)
  • corrode (to eat into or gnaw away)
  • rodent (a gnawing mammal)
The Latin manducare meant to chew or eat:
  • manducate (to consume a consecrated host)
  • manducation (the process of eating, esp. the above)
  • manducatory (relating to eating)
  • mandible (a jawbone)
The Latin masticare means to chew, and it tracks back to a Greek word.
  • masticate (to grind up by chewing)
  • mastication (the act of chewing)
  • masticator (a person or animal that chews)
Interestingly, the word tongs came from an Indo-European word that meant bite. In effect, when the lower ends of tongs are brought together to grasp or pinch an object, they bite it.


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