Saturday, February 06, 2010

The –COR- of the Matter

A caller during last Tuesday’s show asked about the word excoriate. These days, it is used metaphorically to mean to upbraid or to revile; the word tongue-lashing is a natural companion. Originally, to excoriate was to pull the skin or the hide off a body.

I mentioned that the –COR– letter sequence in excoriate came from a Latin word meaning a hide, but I didn’t explicitly tie it to its full source, corium. That prompted Dr. Steve to write from Traverse City that in his college Latin class, he was taught that cor meant heart, not hide.

The good doctor is correct: cor/cordis does mean heart in Latin, and it illustrates one of the few limitations involved in using word parts to decipher meaning. Sometimes identical letter sequences come from widely different sources. Such is the case with –COR–. Let’s examine a sampling of words with that sequence and track their sources.

  • Accordion, the musical instrument, comes from an Italian verb (accordare) that means to attune an instrument, to play in unison.
  • Acoria, an insatiable hunger, comes from a Greek word (koros) that means satiety.
  • Coracoid is a process of bone beak-like in shape. It comes from a Greek word (koraks) that means a raven.
  • Coral, the hard substance found in underwater reefs, comes from a Greek word (korallion) that named red coral.
  • Corbicula, a part of the hind leg of a bee adapted for carrying pollen, comes from a Latin word (corbis) meaning basket.
  • Cordotomy, an operation that severs nerves in the spinal cord to relieve pain, comes from a Greek word (korde) that means gut, the string of a musical instrument.
  • Coreoplasty, plastic surgery performed to correct a defect in the pupil of the eye, comes from a Greek word (kore) that means pupil.
  • Coreopsis, a flower whose seed is bug-shaped, comes from a Greek word (koris) that means a bug.
  • Cormogeny, a branch of science that deals with the germ-history of races or social aggregates, comes from a Greek word (kormos) that means the trunk of a tree.
  • Cornucopia, the horn of plenty, comes from a Latin word (cornu) that means horn.
  • Corona, a small circle of light appearing around the sun or the moon, comes from a Latin word (corona) that means crown.
  • Corpse, a dead body, comes from a Latin word (corpus) that means body.
  • Corrugated, wrinkled or furnished with ridges or furrows, comes from a Latin verb (corrugare) that means to wrinkle.
  • Coruscate, to give off flashes of light, comes from a Latin verb (coruscare) that means to sparkle or gleam.
  • Incorrigible, not correctable, comes from a Latin verb (corrigere) that means to correct.

So reliance on word parts alone won’t always divulge meaning. You may have to add context and a good unabridged dictionary.

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


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