Thursday, September 15, 2011

Grave to Craven

One would think that the root word of ‘gravity’ is related to that hole we dig in the ground and put coffins into, commonly called a grave.  Both bring the sense of “down.”  And how can one miss the weight of solemn sorrow that is associated with burying a human being in the dirt?  But it turns out that etymologists have two histories for the word grave, a sort of convergent evolution: one in the sense of gravity, going back to the Proto Indo-European *gru and another in the sense of that hole in the ground, sending us back to *ghrebh.  Nearly as fascinating is the study of ‘crave’ and ‘craven.’ 

Grave (*gru) – is an adjective, arriving in English through the French, who received it from the Latin for “weighty, serious, heavy, grievous, oppressive.”  The PIE base often contains the notion of strength or force along with weight.  This is the root that ‘gravity’ traces back to. 

Grave (*ghrebh) – is a noun, in the Old English and Old High German meaning much the same as it does today.  The Old Norse used its relative for ‘cave.’  Ultimately, the definition is derived from a sense of “to dig, to scratch, to scrape.” adds some trivia: “From Middle Ages to 17c., [graves] were temporary, crudely marked repositories from which the bones were removed to ossuaries after some years and the grave used for a fresh burial.” 

Gravity – n. weight, dignity, seriousness; from Latin gravitas: “weight, heaviness, pressure.”  From the PIE *gru

Also from PIE *gru comes:

Grief – a word appearing in English since the 13th century, meaning “hardship, suffering, pain, bodily affliction” – especially one undeserved, as in the Old French grief “wrong, grievance, injustice, misfortune, calamity.” 

Grievance – from circa A.D. 1300 the Old French grievance “harm, injury, misfortune, trouble, suffering.”  This word has referred to the cause of such a condition since the late 15th century.  

Grievous – came with the family of words to English around A.D. 1300, once again from the Old French.  Grevos meaning “heavy, hard, toilsome.”  

Also from PIE *gerbh (to scrape), *ghrebh (to dig), and *ghreu (to rub):

-graphy – “process of writing or recording” or “a writing, recording, or description.”  From the Greek meaning first “to draw” and then “to express by written characters”: originally, “to scrape, scratch (on clay tablets with a stylus).”

Graphe – n. “a thing written”; translated ‘scripture’ from New Testament Greek manuscripts. 

Graven – adj. “deeply impressed; firmly fixed.  Carved; sculptured”  See Exodus 20:4: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,

Gravel – n. “sand.”  Related to the Modern French greve which refers to the seashore or sand.  Possibly from the Celtic *gravo, and perhaps ultimately from PIE *ghreu – “to rub, grind.”

Grind – a verb dating back to the Old English where it was a class III strong verb: past tense grand, past participle grunden.  See PIE *ghrendh also attested in Latin frendere “to gnash the teeth” and Greek khondros “corn, grain” or Lithuanian grendu “to scrape, scratch.”   

And now on to the “c” words, beginning with one mentioned in a definition above:

Carve – yet another Old English class III strong verb: past tense cearf, past participle corfen.  Meaning “to cut, slay, cut out, engrave.”  From the PIE base *gerbh

Craven – was used fascinatingly by JRR Tolkien in Lord of the Rings – consider all the nuance he was trying to communicate when he described a character’s words as “craven.”  This adjective comes from the French cravant, Old French crevante “defeated” from the Latin crepare “to crack, creak.”  It was most likely affected by ‘crave’ (though previously unrelated) to move from “defeated” to “cowardly” as long ago as A.D. 1400.  Some etymologists suggest that the word kept a hold on the earlier definition by justifying the shift to modern “cowardly” as a result of “confessing oneself defeated.” 

Crave – comes from the North Germanic *krabojan “ask, implore, and especially demand by right.  The current sense “to long for” is as old as A.D. 1400, probably developed through the intermediate usage of “to ask very earnestly” in the 1300’s.  Through the mutual base sense of “power”, ‘crave’ may be related to ‘craft.’ 

Craft – a noun meaning “power, physical strength, might” especially in the older occurrences (see Proto-Germanic *krab-/*kraf- bases) but expanded in Old English to include “skill, art, science, and talent.”  These latter led to the meaning “trade, handicraft, calling.”   

Craft – Interestingly, the verb form was obsolete for about 300 years, originally meaning “to exercise a craft, build” in the Old English, and revived in the United States especially, beginning in the 1950’s. 

Craft – used as a noun for “small boat” first in the 1670’s.  May have come to use via either the trade the small boats engaged in or the seamanship required to man the vessels. 

Thanks to:
Strong’s Concordance as found on
and mostly to

To God be all glory.

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