Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!


In preparing for a workshop I asked teachers to send me words that would be useful to take on. One of the many interesting words I received was . I'd never considered the structure of this basic word, so I thought this was a good opportunity.

I ran into some interesting questions, and thought I'd post my initial analysis here and see if I can get some friends from the Realspellers community to shed some further light. Before I ask for help, however, I should provide a clear story of my investigation so far...

So as my "Stuck on a Spelling?" chart tells me, the first question is about meaning.Screen_shot_2011-03-31_at_4.13.54_PM

Obviously I know what a vegetable is, but starting off with a few good references is likely to reveal useful information I might otherwise miss. 

My "Mactionary" (the Oxford on my Mac - I like this blend I first saw my friend Gina use) gives this origin:

ORIGIN late Middle English (in the sense [growing as a plant] ): from Old French, or from late Latin vegetabilis ‘animating,’ from Latin vegetare (see vegetate ). The noun dates from the late 16th cent.

I see a Latin root 'vegetare' that is giving me some ideas of the base of . The meaning 'growing' seems logical, but there may be more to learn if I follow the suggestion to go to . (The relation between and also gives me ideas for word structure).

Here's the full citation for from my Mactionary:

vegetate |ˈvɛdʒəˌteɪt|verb [ intrans. ]1 live or spend a period of time in a dull, inactive, unchallenging way: if she left him there alone, he'd sit in front of the television set and vegetate. 2 dated (of a plant or seed) grow; sprout.• [ trans. ] cause plants to grow in or cover (a place).3 Medicine (of an abnormal growth) increase in size.ORIGIN early 17th cent.: from Latin vegetat- ‘enlivened,’ from the verb vegetare, from vegetus ‘active,’ from vegere ‘be active.’

Two things here caught my eye. First, the final root cited 'vegere' gives me an additional idea in terms of the structure of and . Second, there is a funny tale of the connotation of the word that seems so opposite to the denotation of the root, 'vegere' for 'be active'!

I also went over to and found the following information on and :

vegetable (adj.) Look up vegetable at
c.1400, "living and growing as a plant," from O.Fr. vegetable "living, fit to live," from M.L. vegetabilis "growing, flourishing," from L.L. vegetabilis "animating, enlivening," from L. vegetare "to enliven," from vegetus "vigorous, active," from vegere "to be alive, active, to quicken," from PIE *weg- "be strong, lively," related to watch (v.), vigor, velocity, and possibly witch (see vigil). The meaning "resembling that of a vegetable, dull, uneventful" is attested from 1854 (see vegetable (n.)).
vegetable (n.) Look up vegetable at
1580s, originally any plant, from vegetable (adj.); specific sense of "plant cultivated for food, edible herb or root" is first recorded 1767. Slang shortening veggie first recorded 1955. The O.E. word was wyrte. Meaning "person who leads a monotonous life" is recorded from 1921. The commonest source of words for vegetables in IE languages are derivatives of words for "green" or "growing" (cf. It., Sp. verdura, Ir. glasraidh, Dan. grøntsager). For a different association, cf. Gk. lakhana, related to lakhaino "to dig."
vegetate (v.) Look up vegetate at
c.1600, "to grow as plants do," perhaps a back formation from vegetation, or from L. vegetatus, pp. of vegetare "to enliven, to animate" (see vegetable (adj.)). Sense of "to lead a dull, empty, or stagnant life" is from 1740.

I see similar information, but was surprised at the idea of cited as an adjective with a connotation in line with the denotation of the root, but opposite of the connotation of someone being in a "vegetative state" because of a dire medical condition. 

Anyway, with this background, I'm in good shape for going into the next step of investigating how is built. The necessary tool here is the word sum to look for a coherent morphological structure.

The information from the dictionary has already primed me to think of morphological and etymological relatives that help me hypothesize a structure. 

The connection between and have a 'lowest common factor' , but such a base doesn't make sense as it would require a non-existant suffix <*-ble> and <*-te>. Much more logical is to hypothesize a common base or stem (or ) with the suffixes I do know <-able> and <-ate>. 

So these two word sums pass the structure and meaning test to suggest a common base or stem .

veget + able --> vegetable

veget + ate --> vegetation 

(Before going on - notices that the letter sequence

in that happens to be the same sequence in the everyday base word
has not distracted my investigation. My dictionary research lead me away from this happenstance that could easily grab me at the beginning. I see not meaning connection between
and , and have no need to go down that track now.)


But I need to test whether is a base or a stem. That means, is it a single, indivisible base morpheme, or is it a a stem -- complex structure with a base and another morpheme that can be further analysed.

The Latin root I found earlier vegerebe active.’ gives me reason to believe that I could have a base or followed by an <-et> suffix. 

I did this search on the Word Searcher to check this possibility out...

The term excited me, but then I found this from my Mactionary: 

vegan |ˈvigən|nouna person who does not eat or use animal products : I'm a strict vegan | [as adj. ] a vegan diet.ORIGIN 1940s: from vegetarian + -an .

If I believe this reference this is a clip of rather than the base or plus the suffix <-an>. But, I don't know if I trust the dictionary on this one!

If is built on a real base, I see it would have to be to avoid a doubled with the vowel suffix <-an>

So this is as far as I got. 

Until I'm convinced that is the base, I'll have to stick with

I'm also interested in the story of the semantic shift from the meaning of the root, to the connotation of a state. 

Curious to hear what people think!





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