50 Latin roots that will help you understand the English language
Anyone who has ever studied a stack of GRE vocabulary words or invested in a word-a-day calendar to try to expand their lexicon can attest to the fact that the English language is incredibly expansive. Data has shown that the average adult knows somewhere around 40,000 words in total, and that includes active (i.e., regularly used) and passive (i.e., familiar, but not utilized) vocabulary. Put that number up against the more than one million total words in the English language, and it becomes clear that the percentage of terms in English speakers’ everyday rotation is only a small fraction of the English language as a whole.
Looking at the sheer volume of the English vocabulary, one thing that helps make sense of the words is the notable patterns that emerge in light of its etymological roots; particularly, its Latin roots. Though Latin itself has often been referred to as a dead language, it is very much alive in the 80% of English terms that are borrowed directly from the ancient language and the over 60% of English words that have roots in Latin and Greek. In the same way that a new reader may try to sound out a word phonetically, looking at English through the lens of Latin etymology allows us to obtain a new grasp on the language, such that we can more actively deduce the meanings of unfamiliar words.
To identify key linguistic elements from Latin that appear throughout the English language today, Stacker sorted through educational resources and online databases and compiled a list of 50 important Latin roots that shape the English language as we know it. Read on to get a better understanding of how some of the words you use regularly—and a few perhaps you’ve never seen before—all share a common foundation in Latin.
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- Meaning in English: Yearly
The Latin root “ann”—which means “yearly”—can be found in countless words that reference events and occurrences that happen on a yearly basis. For example, an anniversary celebration marks the passing of another year of a relationship, a business, or a birthday. Then there are yearly events that are characterized as annual, such as award ceremonies (e.g., the Academy Awards), sporting events (e.g., Super Bowl), and holidays (e.g., Halloween).
- Meaning in English: Water, sea
Whether it’s being used in reference to a color such as aqua, a blueish-green hue, or to describe sea life, i.e., aquatic, the Latin root “aqu” is familiar in its relationship to water and large bodies of water. The mainstream familiarity of the Latin root was on full display in the 2006 coming-of-age film “Aquamarine,” where the titular character is a mermaid washed ashore.
- Meaning in English: Hearing, listening, sound
Those who prefer the convenience of listening to their books rather than reading them may recognize this Latin root from the name of Audible, Amazon’s audiobook and entertainment platform. The root also makes an appearance in the English terms audience, as in a group of people gathered together to listen to or receive a performance, and auditorium, the room in which said audience sits to listen.
- Meaning in English: Good
Derived from a Latin term meaning “well,” bene is most commonly used as a prefix in the English language. The word benign means harmless or favorable, and in pathology is used to describe a condition that is not life-threatening. A benefit is something that is considered favorable or advantageous, and the term can also be used to describe a charitable event. A benefactor gives help to a person or a cause. Perhaps the most famous example of a benefactor is Miss Havisham from “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens.
- Meaning in English: Two
The Latin prefix “bi” means two, as does the closely related, Greek-derived prefix “di.” A bifurcation describes the act of something splitting off into two distinct branches. In anatomy, the bicep is a muscle of the arm that runs between the shoulder and the elbow, so-named because it splits off into two branches where the muscle connects at the scapula. The word bicep translates to “two-headed muscle of the arm.”
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- Meaning in English: Book
The Latin root “bibl” may sooner remind college students of having to create bibliographies—detailed lists of the books and sources referenced in academic work—than anything else. However, the root’s connection to the English language has a far deeper history: “bibl” is also the root for the name of the Bible, the collection of Judeo-Christian texts and scripture.
- Meaning in English: Hundred
The term “cent” likely conjures up thoughts of money—i.e., dollars and cents—before anything else, but that ties back perfectly to the Latin root from which the term comes. One cent is 1/100th of a dollar. Pennies aside, the Latin root also makes an appearance in terms like “century” and “centennial,” which pertain to 100-year timespans and a hundredth anniversary, respectively.
- Meaning in English: Around
The Latin root “circum”—meaning “around”—appears in terms like “circumnavigate,” which is the act of traveling all the way around something. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan is remembered for successfully circumnavigating the globe in the early 16th century. This root also appears in terms like “circumvent,” which describes the act of getting around a problem, and “circumstance,” which pairs this root with another Latin root—“stance,” meaning “stand”—to reference a situation that focuses on a core cause.
- Meaning in English: Citizen
“Civility” is characterized by respect towards others, and “civics,” which refers to the infrastructure in place that is intended to facilitate civility, are both rooted in the Latin “civ,” meaning “citizen.” The root also makes an appearance in the name of the Honda Civic, a car that––as the brand puts it––is meant to improve the lives of citizens.
- Meaning in English: Clear
The term “clarity”—which comes from the Latin root “clar,” meaning “clear”—is the property of being both pure and clean, as well as being lucid and coherent. The root has seen a variety of modern uses alluding to its Latin translation, including the brand Clarisonic, a beauty company that develops products meant to provide clearer-looking skin, and Claritin, an allergy medication that promises clarity and relief from chronic allergies.
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