Latin roots go straight down in the soil like a careful farmer’s rows of planted beans. Germanic words are mushrooms growing on the same rotten log, to steal a priceless image from Anatoly Liberman. – D.R.H.

Alphabetization is dying, I suspect. AI searches obviate the need for human skill in alphabets, and designers seem not to want it. Another way of saying I have been unable to sustain it in etymonline; the app technology keeps undercutting it.

AI expects you to seek one thing, and it is eager to hand you that one thing in under .0005 seconds. Yet I need to see the site alphabetically in order to edit it. Or to understand English.

You miss a little when you can’t see the forest. Maybe everything. Now, on your devices, you have a nice stack of dispensable planks; it’s convenient as all. But you lost the forest.

Here’s what you might see if you could.

Sub- words are almost all Latin. Here’s an alphabetical peat-slice of them cut at random from etymonline:

























Sublet and sub-machine gun are modern, shameless hybrids. The rest of them breathe, sweat, and dream in purest Latin.

Their first appearance in English ranges from the 14th century to the late 19th. Some came through French first. For almost half of them there is no corresponding classical Latin word (*submachinegunus). That half was put together in English or French, by minds who knew how Latin looked when it dressed in English or French.

The words plainly follow patterns and rules. The way they stand and move, those words couldn’t be not-Latin if they tried: The noun and verb endings, the automatic process for fitting a suffix to another suffix, consistency of vowels, sparseness of contraction or elision. 

Latinate words wear their etymologies on their sleeves. A dozen possible patterns could suggest themselves in reading that list, even if you lack Latin. Even if you didn’t know what “sub-” means, by the end of the list you’d make a good guess. 

Now flip ahead a few pages. You’re in the sw- section of etymonline (the non-existent book version). Except a few exotics (Swahili, swami) it’s wall-to-wall Germanic. 

Just look at those verbs!
































It doesn’t feel at all the same. Different under foot, an escalator and a bouncy castle. The Germanic words call out senses wrapped in appropriate sounds, and the temptation is to etymologize them as bow-wow words. The Latin words step like they all went to the same school and marched in the same ceremonies and don’t care if you know it. The Germanic words look like the Our Gang kids after a day scrapping in the dump.

There are explanations; Germanic languages stayed vulgar for, sometimes, 2,000 years longer than Latin. Germanic languages longer avoided being fossilized into contract law and theology.

I hesitate to recommend etymology as a vocabulary builder or catalyst to learning English as a second tongue. Whatever patterns and expectations you develop in sub- will be false friends when you turn to sw-. It’s trickier than it looks. It’s not code you can hack.

Even armed with definitions for all those Germanic English words, you can’t comb out senses from them as easily as you can with subjective-subjection-subjectivity. In Germanic, there are few paths in the woods. You peer through a tangle of similar words in clusters of dialects, with shifty vowels and vaguely alike in sense.

The Latin roots tend to go straight down in the soil and keep their spacing, like a careful farmer’s rows of planted beans. The Germanic words are like mushrooms growing on the same rotten log, to steal a priceless image from Anatoly Liberman.


To really feel this, you must invoke the ghosts.

There are few ghosts in the sub- section. That is, relatively few words in sub- ever faded out of English after being well established. Most that fell away seem to have been transients and redundant doublets (sublunar / sublunary). What’s in a dictionary now under sub- is about all of it there ever was to English.

But buried in the flat loam of sw- are mighty words of the old language. By the end of Middle English or shortly thereafter, they had shriveled into specialization or sunk in provincialism or faded into thin air.

There’s swere, a once-common word for “heavy, oppressive; inactive, indolent; loath, reluctant, unwilling.” German schwer “difficult” is a living cognate. There’s sweve; sweven, the usual words for “a dream/to dream” until dream made an odd shift.

There’s swike “deceit, treachery;” swiker “a traitor.” There’s swink, the old word for “to toil, engage in physical labor;” as a noun “work, effort.” Middle English had swinkless for “effortless, free from toil,” swinkful “toilsome,” handiswink “manual labor, physical work;” Chaucer’s plowman was A trewe swynkere, “a true swinker.” All gone and forgotten now, but to Chaucer their absences would be holes in the word-hoard.

You also meet words long-established in different corners of England bearing different vowels: swarve and swerve; sweep, swape, and swope; sweet and swote. Swoopstake was an old or provincial variant of sweepstake. Eventually one becomes standard, but along the way it’s a free-for-all. The speakers seem to be trying out different vowels to find which one gets most laughs.

Here are more dead sw- words culled from Century Dictionary and Middle English Compendium, all of them just as thriving in their time as swag or twerk. You can’t see all of English without these. Each might be a fox-path off among the trunks.

swab – variant of swad or swap

swabble v. – “roll to and fro, as liquids; drink often” n. “a tall thin person”

swad – “short fat person; worthless coal; a crowd”

swadder – “peddler”

swaff – “to beat over, as waves”

swagening – “act of providing emotional comfort”

swail – “board, piece of timber”

swale – “melt and run down with heat”

swalm – “inflammation or swelling of the body”

swalper – “struggle or splash about in water”

swam – “a mushroom or fungus”

swang – “piece of low green ground”

swange – “the lower midriff and flanks of the body”

swank – “thin, slender plant”

sware – “to answer”

swarf – “to faint”

swarken – “become dark”

swarl – “catch in a noose or snare”

swater – “to swoon, swelter”

sweal – “burn slowly”

sweam – “sorrow, grief, despair; qualm of sickness”

sweddle – “swell or puff out”

sweer – “reluctant, unwiling”

sweger – “mother in law”

sweif, sweight – “force or impetus of a moving body”

swelme – “the heat of anger”

swench – “afflict, oppress, trouble”

sweor – “father in law”

swie – “act of keeping silent”

swind – “to languish, fade away”

swinge – “to beat, punish”

swinge – “to singe”

swipper – “nimble, quick”

swire – “the neck”

swirt – “squirt”

swith – “strong, quick; speedy”

swithe – “to burn, scorch”

swither – “physically agile”

swither – “to falter”

swive – “copulate”

swolder – “to drowse, slumber”

swong – “lean, gaunt, emaciated”

sough – “a swamp, bog”

swough – “make a noise like a waterfall”

swound – “swoon.”

Take all that sw-, the living and the dead, at one comprehensive view, and begin to know English. Built from half-Frenchified Roman marble and local wattle-and-daub. The tongues shared, but they never mingled; our purists kept them apart.

Then you become aware of sw- / w- / squ- alteration, which might or might not be real in the mist. Then you’re listening for it with their ears and their minds and your hair begins to rise and the forest swerves surreal.

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