Saturday, January 02, 2010

One Foot in the Grave

Cynthia from Traverse City asked about the connection between a grave person and a burial grave. While both are serious subjects, they come from different sources.

Grave meaning weighty, serious, and important, comes from the Latin gravis, heavy, weighty, or significant. [Cliché: as grave as a judge]

Grave meaning the place of burial comes from a Scandinavian verb that meant to dig. Shakespeare, who couldn’t pass up a pun, has Hamlet combine the two senses as he stands over the body of freshly murdered Polonius: “Indeed this counsellor / Is now most still, most secret and most grave, / Who was in life a foolish prating knave.”

In the 16th century, grave was a variant spelling of grieve. With no connection to the others, grave was also the title of a foreign count, and shows up now in compounds such as landgrave or margrave.

As a verb, grave meant to excavate or to inter, and later was a poetic rendering of engrave. It also meant to clean a ship’s bottom by burning off accretions while it was beached.

SIDEBAR: Find a Grave

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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