ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES and other words

While Charles Darwin gave us the theory of evolution in his ground-breaking work On the Origin of Species, the subject of this blog is etymology: the origin of words and how their meanings have changed over time.

This blog is not intended as an academic treatise on etymology. It does not give every single meaning of the words given below. It is intended as a light and playful skim of the surface rather a plunge into the depths of the meaning, history and origin of words.

On the origin of species and other words

on the origin of species

On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, 1809-1882


The noun species comes from Latin species, which meant ‘a particular sort, kind or type’. In Late Latin, it also came to mean ‘a special case’. The Latin noun is related to the verb specere ‘to look at, to see, behold’. From the 1550s, species came to mean ‘appearance, outward form’, and by the 1560s it had evolved to mean ‘distinct class (of something) based on common characteristics’. The biological meaning of ‘species’ dates from c. 1600. The term ‘endangered species’ appears to date from 1964.

Did you know? The word ‘spice’ derives from the same Late Latin word species.

…and now we go alphabetical

Now that we’ve looked into ‘on the origin of species’, we’ll look at some other words.

I’ve chosen the theme of prefixes and compounds. A prefix is a group of letters, with a specific meaning, added to the beginning of a word to create a new word with a different meaning. The prefix un-, for example, added to the beginning of happy, changes the meaning to, in this case, its opposite: unhappy. Compound nouns comprise some or all of the letters of two separate words in combination.


This prefix derives from the Latin ante, meaning ‘before (in place or time), in front of, against’.

Some examples:

antechamber – a chamber, room or apartment through which access is gained to a principal apartment

antenatal – before birth

ante meridiem – before midday. Most of us are familiar with the abbreviated form am, which is used in the example sentence below.

Sentences using the above:

The king’s youthful groom of the stool looked up when the queen entered the antechamber on her way to the king’s private apartments.

The young parents attended antenatal classes to be ready for the birth of their twins.

‘We leave at 11 am,’ Dot’s husband announced.

What’s the opposite of ante-?

The opposite of ante- is post-.


bene- comes from the Latin adverb meaning ‘well, in the right way, honourably, properly’.

Some examples:

beneficence – kind, charitable

benefit – something beneficial or advantageous

benign – kind, favourable

Sentences using the above:

The king’s beneficence was appreciated by all his medieval subjects.

A benefit of working from home is you don’t get caught in peak traffic.

He has a benign smile.

What’s the opposite of bene-?

The opposite of bene- is mal-.


This prefix comes from the Greek word kardia meaning ‘heart’.cardio

Some examples:

cardiologist – heart specialist

cardiometer – a device to measure the strength of the heart

cardiopulmonary – relating to the heart and the lungs

Sentences using the above:

The cardiologist measured the strength of Sue’s heart using a cardiometer.

The conference addressed specialists in cardiopulmonary diseases.

dec- and deca-

These prefixes derive from the Greek word deka meaning ‘ten’.

Some examples:

Decalogue – the Ten Commandments. The word originally came from the Greek dekalogos; later, in Latin, this became decalogus.

decagon – a polygon with ten angles and ten sides

decaspermal – a botanical term meaning a plant that contains ten seeds

Sentences using the above:

God handed Moses the Decalogue on Mt Sinai.

A polygon with ten sides is called a decagon.

The berry of the plant Psidium decaspermum is decaspermal.


This is a shortening of ecology or ecological and refers to the environment and its relationship with human beings. It originates from the Greek oikos for ‘house, dwelling’.

Some examples:

ecofreak (that’s a good one!) – someone who is fanatical about conservation of the environment

ecology – the branch of biology dealing with the relationship of living organisms to their environment (Greek eco- + logos ‘word, reason, discourse’)

eco-friendly – causing limited or no damage to the environment

Sentence using the above:

Some people think Ben’s an ecofreak because he majored in ecology and he works for an eco-friendly organisation.


Franco- derives from the Medieval Latin word meaning ‘French’ or ‘the Franks’. From the early eighteenth century it has been used to form English compound words.

prefix Franco

ooh la, la

Some examples:

Francophile – a person who loves France and the French to the point of obsession

Francophobe – a person who has a morbid fear of the French

Franco-Canadians – French-speaking Canadians

Sentences using the above:

All Fred’s friends call him a Francophile because he visits France every year and he’s in love with France and the French.

Robert is a Francophobe who can’t stand France or the French.

People who speak French in Canada are called Franco-Canadians or Canadiens.


Deriving from the Greek word gastēr, this meant ‘stomach’.

Some examples:

gastroenterologist – a specialist in the branch of medicine dealing with the stomach and intestines

gastroenteritis – inflammation of the stomach and intestines. You may have heard this abbreviated colloquially to ‘gastro’

gastropod – a class of molluscs that move by sliding along on a ventral (relating to the belly) muscular ‘foot’

Sentences using the above:

Frank was having recurring problems with his digestion so his doctor referred him to a gastroenterologist.

I had to take two days off work because I had an attack of gastroenteritis.

Slugs and snails are gastropods.


From the Greek hydōr meaning ‘water’.

Some examples:

hydroelectric – electricity produced from the energy of running water

hydrogen – colourless, gaseous element. From the French hydrogène (Greek hydōr + Greek genēs meaning ‘born’), coined in 1787 by French chemist L.B. Guyton de Morveau in reference to the generation of water from the combustion of hydrogen

hydroplane – motor-powered boat that glides on the surface of water, coined 1895 by U.S. engineer Harvey D. Williams. (Greek hydōr + Latin plānum ‘level surface’). As a verb, it was first recorded in 1962 meaning to ‘skid on a thin layer of water’ (especially of car tyres)

Sentences using the above:

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China is the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, commissioned in 2008.

Hydrogen is a colourless gas and it is the lightest and most common element in the universe.

hydroplane is a speedboat that rises out of the water when it reaches a certain speed.


From the Greek idio- meaning ‘private, separate, distinct’, this indicates peculiarity, isolation, or something pertaining to an individual person or thing.

Some examples:

idiom – words whose meaning cannot be understood from the meanings of accompanying words, e.g. ‘It was raining cats and dogs’. Unless you’re a native English speaker, or a proficient non-native English speaker, you cannot predict the meaning of ‘cats and dogs’ in this sentence

idiosyncrasy – a quirk or unusual trait, mannerism or behaviour (from Greek idiosunkrasia: idio– + sunkrasis mixture, temperament)

idolatry – ‘the worship of idols’ or ‘excessive devotion to someone/something’

Sentences using the above:

The English-language students looked at one another in astonishment when their teacher used the idiom ‘bite the bullet’.

Her idiosyncrasy was that she wore reading glasses when she didn’t need them.

His idolatry of the president is insufferable.


From the Greek kerat-, keras meaning ‘horn’

Some examples:

keratin – a  protein in the outer layer of the skin and in hair, nails, feathers, hooves, etc.

keratosis – a harmless skin condition characterised by a horny or scaly growth

Sentences using the above:

A horn is a permanent pointed projection on the head of various animals consisting of a covering of keratin and other proteins surrounding a core of live bone (Wikipedia).

When I had my skin cancer check recently, the specialist said not to worry as I only had a solar keratosis.

Did you know? The word cornea (the transparent membrane covering the front of the eyeball) is a Latin word related to the Greek keras.


If you’ve enjoyed reading about the origin of words like ‘species’, ‘ecofreak’ and ‘Francophile’, drop me an email.


Collins Online Dictionary, accessed 03/01/19, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english

Macquarie Dictionary, accessed 03/01/19, https://www.macquariedictionary.com.au/

Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed 02/01/19, https://www.etymonline.com/

Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, CD-ROM Version 4.0

Wikipedia, accessed 03/01/19, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horn_(anatomy)

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Desert or Dessert? More commonly confused word pairs

Desert or dessert? More commonly confused word pairs

How do you know when to use desert or dessert? It’s or its? Fewer or less? These are some of the commonly confused word pairs that this blog sets out to explain. We give clear examples of when to use which word. Enjoy the discussion on Desert or dessert, more commonly confused word pairs, and we hope it helps you with your writing.

Desert and Dessert

A desert is dry land. It is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable: desert. The dashing Arabian prince stampeded across the desert on his white stallion.

commonly confused word pairs, vocabulary, grammar, desert or dessert

Desert or dessert? More commonly confused word pairs. Think of me when you’re not sure: handsome Arab prince on white steed stampeding across the desert

A dessert is a sweet treat, usually eaten after dinner (although Johnny doesn’t think it’s fair). It is spelt with two s’s and pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable: dessert. Johnny: “Mum, I want dessert!” Mum: “Johnny, no sweets until you’ve eaten your lovely vegetables.”

Disinterested and Uninterested

Uninterested means lacking in interest towards something or someone. Josh was uninterested in physics, and in every class his attention wandered to surfing, his girlfriend and everything but physics. In other words, Josh couldn’t care less about physics.

Disinterested means a neutral or impartial attitude towards something or someone. John is a judge. In criminal trials, he must act as a disinterested participant. This means that although John takes an active part in trials, he must remain impartial.

Endings –er and –est

These endings (or suffixes) are added to adjectives to compare items. An adjective (adj) is a word that qualifies (adds more meaning to) a noun (n).

Example: Libby has a big (adj) motorbike (n). To compare two or more items –er is added to the adjective.  Libby and Jo both have motorbikes but Jo’s is bigger than Libby’s. To compare three or more items –est is added to the adjective. Libby, Jo and Stephanie all have motorbikes but Stephanie’s is the biggest.

Not all adjectives can be made comparative by adding these suffixes. The general rule that applies – ‘general’ because English has so many exceptions! – is that adjectives of up to two syllables are made comparative by using –er or –est and adjectives of three or more syllables use ‘more’ and ‘most’ before the adjective.

Example: Lizzy thought her graduation dress was fancier than Martina’s. ‘Fancy’ is a two-syllable adjective so the suffix –er can be added to compare the two items. Constanza believed her dress was the fanciest of them all.

But: Lizzy thought her graduation dress was more beautiful than Martina’s – because the adjective ‘beautiful’ has three syllables. And: Constanza believed her dress was the most beautiful of them all.

Eminent and Imminent and Immanent

You’re more likely to see the words eminent and imminent in everyday language than you are to see immanent.

Eminent means prominent or famous. Example: Socrates was an eminent philosopher.

Imminent means that something is about to happen. Example: Julia looked up at the cloud-laden sky and said to Harry, “A storm is imminent, let’s run for cover.”

Immanent is a rarely used adjective. Its most common meanings are ‘existing, operating, or remaining within; inherent’. Example: All were stirred by the remoteness of the place, and by the immanent beauty of the river and the woods above it. – Philip Marsden, The Main Cages (2002)

Farther and Further

Farther implies a measurable or physical distance.

Example: I have to drive farther to the shops than Jessica does.

Further is used for abstract lengths that are not always measurable. He borrowed $10,000 on his credit card, driving him further into debt.

Trick to distinguish between the two: You could substitute the word ‘additional’ or ‘to a greater extent’ for ‘further’.

Fewer and Less

Fewer is better used with countable nouns and less with uncountable nouns and with intangible concepts. See previous blog on ‘Nouns and Dangling Modifiers’, where countable and uncountable nouns are explained in detail.

Examples: 1. My company has fewer employees than Jasper’s company, but his company is less efficient than mine. 2. I drink less water than you do. 3. Maggie spent less time on the assignment than Maddie did.


desert or dessert, it's or its, me myself and I, vocabulary, grammar

Desert or dessert? More commonly confused word pairs. Impactful isn’t a word, it doesn’t exist, so…no.

This one is simple. Don’t use it. It isn’t a word. It doesn’t exist. End of explanation.

It’s and Its

It’s is the contraction (short form) of ‘it is’. The apostrophe takes the place of the letter that is dropped, the ‘i’ in ‘is’. Example: It’s a beautiful day = it is a beautiful day.

The most common usage of its is as a possessive adjective. Example: I’m afraid of Ben’s tiger. Don’t worry, its snarl is worse than its bite.

Trick: If the sentence doesn’t make sense by using the long form of the contraction ‘it is’, then your word is its without the apostrophe.

Loose and Lose

Loose is mainly used as an adjective (it can also be an adverb). Example: The teacher’s trousers were so loose that they were in danger of falling off altogether.

Lose is a verb. Example: The coach instructed his team, “Don’t lose the game or there’ll be no beer and pizza on Friday night.”

Me, Myself, and I

me myself and I, commonly confused word pairs, vocabulary, grammar

Desert or dessert? Me, myself or I???? More commonly confused word pairs

This brings us to a short discussion of subjects and objects in sentences. Me is always the object – an action is done to ‘me’; I is always the subject – ‘I’ is the person who carries out the action. Myself is a reflexive pronoun and is used when ‘I’ has been used earlier in the sentence.

Example: I brought Joanie home to have dinner with my family and me. Joanie passed me the salt. In the morning, I made myself breakfast.

Trick: To decide correct usage, omit the other person from the sentence. For example, in the first sentence above, if you remove ‘with my family’ it’s easy to see that ‘me’ is correct: I brought Joanie home to have dinner with me (not ‘I’). Joanie and I went home to my place for dinner. Omitting Joanie from the sentence, I went home to my place for dinner (not ‘me’).

Nauseous and Nauseated

nauseous or nauseated, desert or dessert, it's or its, me myself and I, commonly confused word pairs, grammar, vocabulary

Desert or dessert? More commonly confused word pairs. “I’m awfully nauseated; must be the master’s shoes I ate this morning.”

Don’t embarrass yourself by saying the opposite of what you mean. If you say you feel nauseous, it means that you generate in others the feeling of nausea towards you. It’s a common mistake and it’s quite funny really, but it’s wrong. I am nauseated means that you feel sick or disgusted.

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