I want to know why there is no <e> in the word <argument> if the base is <argue>?

Does it have something to do with British/American English like the word <judgment> or because there is a long/short vowel in it ?


Comments (1)
1Saturday, 12 February 2011 06:01

I was puzzled myself for along time about the apparent disjunction between <argument> and <argue>. I could see a couple of possibilities, one of which was that <argue> was a 'back formation' from <argument>, giving <argu>, which then acquired the conventional final <e> to prevent a word from ending with just <u>. But there is no record or direct evidence of this, so I just left the question hanging.

The clarification came during a Study Week for French

  • The Modern French verb <argu(er)> does not have the same meaning as the Modern English <argue>. The French for "to argue" is <se disputer>.

  • The Modern French verb <argu(er)> means "prove (something as correct), convince". 

  • This modern French verb goes back to the Latin <argu(ere)> "make clear, prove". The Latin noun derived from this verb was <argument(um)> "proof, evidence of correctness". The word came into French as <argument> and was quickly borrowed into Middle English as <argument> with the meaning of "reasoned proof (of something)".

This got me thinking about the idea of "cantankerousness' in the English <argue> that is such a long way from the meaning of what I was taking as the French equivalent; so I started looking more deeply. And it paid off.

In Latin there were TWO separate root verbs: <argu(ere)>, the one with the "proof" idea, and <argutar(i)> with the totally separate meaning of "chatter on annoyingly". It is this second, different, verb that is the root of the English <argue>.

Was I delighted to see that in etymological fact, the English <argue> and <argument> each come from completely different roots. They are not - in origin - in the same word family at all!

Over time, the near total similarity in English has meant that the sense of the verb <argue> has progressively influenced our use of <argument> towards acquiring the idea of "dispute" as well as its proper denotation of "reasoned proof", but the fact remains that, as far as English is concerned, the one is not derived from the other.

<Argue> and <argument> simply do not belong to the same etymology or morphological family at all.

Saturday, 12 February 2011 08:07

I wonder, then, if we actually have two different words in English that look and sound exactly the same, but are from two different Latin roots.

Because "argue" is also used in the judicial system in a way that is much closer to the meaning "to prove or make clear" -- we speak of a lawyer going to argue a case, which means to prove that his client is innocent or the accused is guilty or a case is valid or invalid. We speak of arguing before the Supreme Court, making oral arguments -- none of these have any sense of chattering on annoyingly.

We can, of course, say that lawyers are annoying, but really, the word used in that way has no such connotation.

Saturday, 12 February 2011 11:57

That’s a nice point that you make. The notion of a conflation, rather than confusion, does fit the circumstances .

From the diachronic point of view, <argument> and <argue> (the one with the orthographic denotation of “make clear with proof”) are not mutual derivations within English, but their respective etymons were so in Latin itself. 

The notion that <argue> might be a back formation from <argument> (rather like <edit> is a back formation from <editor / edition>) is not impossible, but we would need evidence that <argue> appears significantly later than <argument>, its putative source. But all the evidence is that <argument> and <argue> are synchronous.

Your suggestion, then, that the inevitable air of dispute that is associated with legal exchanges might account for the coalescing of the two senses can be taken to be rather felicitous.

One of the many qualities of this Real Spellers forum that you have set up is that interchange can proceed arguitively (1665).

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