Reading a very boring and tedious book - the author won't mind me saying so as he's been dead for well over a hundred years - I read a list of words with identical meaning. (The author clearly did it to annoy me and not to emphasise his point.) So transfixed was I by his 676-page drone, my mind wandered and I found myself thinking about the etymologies of each of these words and whether they had anything in common. I suspected, from the various forms, that many would have had very different usages and meanings in the past - such discussed in earlier blog posts for some twenty posts up to the 16th January 2022.
I decided I would take this, as with the earlier posts, in alphabetical order and thus begin with a word which would never describe me when reading the book, for A for Alert, which we take first as a verb. It came to English from the French in the early 17th century, where a l'erte translates as 'on the watch'. Here the last element is related to the Latin erta 'a high tower'.
Vigilant is another from French, coming to English in the late 15th century, itself directly from Latin vigilantem. Both have idential meanings but can be traced back further to Proto-Indo-European weg 'strong, lively'.
Awake is first seen in the earlier Middle English form awaecnan 'to arise, originate'. Trace this back through the Germanic line and we come to the same root, that of Proto-Indo-European weg 'strong, lively'. Note the original use as 'awaken' meant specifically 'to rouse from sleep', and only later changed usage.
Aware is another through the Germanic line, where early forms saw Old High German ga-waraz 'be wary'. Again a Proto-Indo-European rouut, this time wer 'perceive, watch for'.
Watchful is seen from around 1500, with two elements which we will look at seperately. The suffix 'ful' is clearly intended to describe the amount of the other element, and always intended to show there was plenty of whatever that was. Of more interest is the Old English and Middle English words using this element, where it would inevitably come before the other element as a prefix, not a suffix. 'Watch' has the same origins as 'wake', ultimately from to Proto-Indo-European weg 'strong, lively'.
Attentive is another Old French derivation, where atentif meaning 'expectant, hopeful'. This came from the Latin attendere meaning 'give heed to' and has also given us 'attend'. Sadly the trail has not been traced further back in history.
Observant is seen in English since around 1600, unchanged from its French version but with a slightly different meaning. In French observant makes much more sense in meaning 'paying due attention to what is required'.
Wary we have already seen above in looking at 'aware'. Different word but same etymology and history.
Canny is Scotland and northern England dialect derived from 'cunning', this from Old English cunnan and ultimately the Proto-Indo-European root gno or 'to know'. To return to 'canny' for a moment, in Scotland three centuries ago the usage would be more 'lucky, prudent, skillful'. Even more unusual was 'uncanny', which rather than meaning the opposite, was used to mean 'dangerous'. Isn't language wonderful?
Heedful is another with two elements and, as we have already looked at the suffix under 'watchful', we will look at 'heed'. It has a Germanic origin, where we find hodian, hoda, hoeden, huotan, huten and others in several Germanic tongues, all of which can be traced to Proto-Indo-European kadh meaning 'shelter'. Indeed, all these Germanic words can also be seen in the etymology of 'hat'. While 'shelter' to 'hat' makes perfect sense, 'shelter' to 'observe, attend' takes a lot more thought.
Circumspect has two elements, the prefix is readily seen as meaning 'look around', while the rest is from Proto-Indo-European spek 'to observe'.
Care is next - note, previously the words have been verbs and/or adjectives, but from hereafter nouns - and another word of Germanic origins. Old English cearian 'be anxious' gives a clue to earlier meanings, for the original Proto-Indo-European gar or 'cry out, call, scream' is closer related to 'compain, lament' than the 'take heed' sense today. Interesting to note the word 'garrulous', a seemingly complex word, is much closer to the original gar and with more or less the same 'verbose' meaning.
Caution or 'to warn' comes from the noun, itself derived from the same word in Old French, where it meant 'security'. Both the French and the Latin cautionem are derived from Proto-Indo-European keu 'observe, perceive'.
Wariness has the suffix seen in many historical Western European languages, and always the same meaning, following a word we have already seen twice above in 'aware' and 'wary.
Alertness features the same suffix, 'ness', with the word we came in with. Thus roughly half have the same origin, ostensibly always having the same meaning, while the remainder have wandered from the original sense but mostly understandably.