For the Love of Prepositions and Affixes Part 15: re- and wer-

Here is a little quiz.

What do the words ‘prose’ and ‘verse’ and ‘conversation’ and ‘weird’ ‘worms’ ‘wriggling’ ‘towards’ you have in common with economic ‘worth’, ‘worry’, ‘wrongdoing’ and every word that begins with the prefix ‘re-’: ‘return’, ‘reverse’, ‘revolution’, ‘revision’, ‘remembrance’ and all the rest?

The answer is the Proto-Indo-European root *wer(t)- meaning ‘turn’ or ‘bend,’ which turns up as prefix re- and suffix –vert in Latin, and as a wer- wor- or wr- prefix in Germanic languages such as English.

Tempted we may be to deceive ourselves into thinking that the words ‘word,’ ‘world’ and ‘awareness’ too derive from the same root but alas they do not.

In fact, at least seven other distinct Indo-European roots all turn up as wer- or something similar to it in more modern languages.

There is the wer- of ‘air’ and ‘aura’, of ‘arias’ and ‘aerobics’, ‘arteries’ and ‘meteors’.

And then there is wer- of watching out and warding off, found in ‘aware’, ‘beware’, ‘warden’, ‘warehouse’, ‘wary’, ‘hardware’, ‘software’, ‘reverence’ and ‘veneration’.

And there is the wer- of covering found in ‘warrants’, ‘guarantees’, ‘garnishes’ and ‘garages’.

And there is also wer- meaning human being as in ‘werewolf’ and ‘virility’.

Combined with IE *gher(d), which has also given us ‘gardens’ and ‘yards’, this last ‘werewolf’ prefix also provides us with the very world (*weregherd) of Earth on which, should we need reminding, we are doomed forever to live.

And, were this not enough, there is also the wer- of ‘word’ and ‘verb’, and the wer- of ‘veracity’ and ‘verisimilitude’.

And, more disturbing still, there is also the wer- of ‘war’ and ‘worse’.

‘Dike eris, eris dike’, as the old philosopher put it. Law is war and war is law.

Language is a wayward tangled mess indeed, with sounds and meanings forever converging and diverging as they hurtle through eternity together on the lips of hasty-tongued human beings. What rhapsodies we are apt to wrest from the vortex of adversity into which we are thus thrust by peevish fate.

The /w/ sound is also one of the most prevalent in world languages and one of the first to be mastered by infants. This phoneme is more primordial—more inchoate and pre-maternal—than /m/, reminding us of the womb to which we are wont to revert.

The idea of twisting and bending things is likewise very primeval and it should come as no surprise that it ends up lending its name to our entire universe, wrought as it is of quantum entanglement in our prose and verse, and war of all against all.

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