Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Crazy Pattern in English

Yes, I am a linguistics geek.

I was driving to pick up my daughter today and thinking about the old meaning of the word "stupid," which was "stunned by grief or other strong emotion." Then it struck me that this word was probably related to the word "stupor." So I tried to think of some other examples of words with this -id/-or pattern, and within a minute or so I'd come up with valid/valor - except I wasn't sure if my extrapolation was (pardon me for this one) valid.

So after dinner tonight I pulled out my etymological dictionary (everybody should have one! :-) ) and I checked it out.

This pattern is bigger than I suspected.

The -id suffix makes adjectives out of old Latin verbs, while the -or (-our, for Brits) suffix makes nouns. Not every -id word has a corresponding -or word, nor does every -or word have an -id word, but check this out:

stupid / stupor
vapid / vapor
valid / valor
candid / candor
fervid / fervor
rigid / rigor
splendid / splendor
rancid / rancor
torpid / torpor

Valid/valor, the one I'd been wondering about, comes from the Latin vale, "to be strong or well."

I thought of another one, too: languid / languor

For interest's sake, I'll give you the ones that don't have correspondents:

-id: torrid, acid, fluid, morbid, gravid
-or: ardor, clamor, color, dolor, favor, honor, labor, odor, savor


  1. Ah, wonderful! Maybe we should just go and coin all the missing words... I'm glad to see someone can get into this like I do.

  2. I notice six out of nine -or not having a matching -id words can also be verbs. However, none of the the paired ones can. Is there any significance to that?

  3. Interesting, fennel giraffe. I'm guessing there's no special significance to the pattern, but it probably isn't accidental.

    Language change has a lot to do with patterns of usage and similarity among words, so words that speakers mentally associate with one another will tend to stay associated, and that will slow change.

    Which is to say that maybe way back when the non-paired words were "freer" to change, and right now there is definitely a process in English that changes nouns to verbs. What I couldn't say for sure, not being a scholar of the history of English, is whether this is the exact change that occurred with the -or examples.

  4. Also note that some of the unmatched words form what might be the equivalent using other changes:

    favor/favorite (as pointed out already)

    torrid/torrent seem to be false pairs since they are almost antonyms.

    And of course, most of the -or's are turned into adjectives with -ous.

    Perhaps some of this could be related more to their original conjugations in the source language. Or perhaps some came direct from Latin and others came through French (or other languages).

  5. Very good point. These patterns often will differ based on the form of the original Latin verb. I appreciate you pointing them out.

  6. "vapor" comes from a Latin noun directly L. vapor, vaporis meaning "steam/vapor; exhalation; heat/warmth (of sun); fever, body heat; excited state
    sound; cry"

    "vapid" comes from adding -idus, meaning "lesser."vapidus "flat, insipid," lit. "that has exhaled its vapor." In a word: vaporless.

    However, "candid" does not have the meaning of candor-less, and must come by its suffix in some other way. The Latin candor seems to be formed from the passive of candere, "to be of brilliant whiteness, shine, gleam (white); become/be hot; glow, sparkle." So: "candor":

    "Candid" come from candidus, "that which has the property of being white." It refers to the chalk-whitened toga worn by those standing for office. (Lit. "standing": they stood on special pedestals in the Forum, wearing the candidus to mark them as candidates. They were not allowed to give speeches or initiate conversations with voters - an innovation we should adopt - unless directly addressed by a voter.)

    It occurs to me that the relationship of "candid" to "candidate" rather spoils the meaning of "candid." Maybe it does mean "candor-less" in this context. [ROFL] Sorry.

    What I am longwindingly wondering aloud is whether -or/-id pairs arise in different contexts, and what we see is possibly coincidental. That would explain the "deficient pairs."

  7. I'm glad to have your expertise in classical language to draw on, Mike! You may be right that some of these pairs may have separate derivations. I would be somewhat surprised if candor and candid didn't have some even earlier root in common, given the similarity of bright/white. One thing that may be involved is a human linguistic tendency to regularize things, i.e. to hypercorrect. It may be that candid was adopted into this pattern (without a derivation exactly like the others) by virtue of its surface similarity.

    You've really deepened this discussion - thanks so much!