For some reason I can remember talking to a piano student (so, at least 19 years ago, now) about English words which end in ‘-spire’, from the Latin ‘spīrāre’ to breathe (the noun ‘spīritus’, from which we get ‘spirit’, is also related). (Possibly this cropped up via the musical term ‘con spirito’.) I’ve just been researching these in slightly more detail; there are eight in total: aspire, conspire, expire, inspire, perspire, respire, suspire and transpire. All entered English in the late Middle English period, either directly from Latin or via Middle French, and have spawned other derived words. All of the Latin prefixes are also found in many other English and Latin words, and are, ultimately, Latin prepositions.

aspire = breathe toward (a- is a reduced form of ‘ad’)

conspire = breathe with (con- is a form of ‘com-’, which in turn is a variation of the Latin preposition ‘cum’)

expire = breathe out

inspire = breathe in (Note the differences between ‘expire’ (I will expire all by myself, once, eventually) and ‘inspire’ (Someone or something else inspires me, many times, I hope). Note also that Latin had another word for ‘breathe’ – ‘hālāre ’, from which we get ‘exhale’ and ‘inhale’, but none of the others.)

perspire = breathe through

respire = breathe again or breathe repeatedly

suspire = breathe under (su- is a reduced form of ‘sub’) (This is possibly the least common of these eight words. The spell check on Pages for Mac recognises it, but the spell check here on WordPress doesn’t. I probably would not have thought about it if I hadn’t found it in the dictionary.)

transpire = breathe across (This word has probably changed the most in English. The original meanings were: ‘to emit or give off waste matter, watery vapor, etc., through the surface, as of the body or of leaves; to escape, as moisture or odor, through or as if through pores’. From these the meaning ‘to be revealed or become known’ developed and some people argue that this is the meaning of the word, and that it should not be used to mean ‘to occur; happen; take place’.)

I remember that my student asked me whether ‘spiral’ had the same origin, and I looked it up when I got home and the next week was able to tell her no. It comes from ‘Medieval Latin spīrālis, equivalent to Latin spīra coil’ and ultimately from ‘Greek speîra anything coiled, wreathed, or twisted’.

Maybe I also mentioned ‘spire’, which I remember someone saying sometime (?at a church music summer school) also had the same origin: a spire represents the ‘breath’ of prayers aspiring to heaven. No it doesn’t:  it’s Germanic in origin and entered English before 1000: ‘Middle English; Old English spīr spike, blade; cognate with Middle Dutch spier, Middle Low German spīr shoot, sprout, sprig, Old Norse spīra stalk

All definitions etc from Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2015.


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