Word Connections: Life & Death

There are few concepts that are more essential to the human condition than that of “life” and “death”. As a result, English includes a rich set of words whose meanings or origins are linked to life and death. For many of these words — such as “vivid”, “mortgage”, and “vitamin” — the connections with life and death are no longer so apparent. In this article we shall do a bit of excavating to see what “life & death” words we can dig up, and to explore the origins of these words and their connections to other languages.

Our basic words dealing with life have a strangely overlapping collection of spellings and pronunciations. “Life” is a noun, and the corresponding verb is “live” — as in “May you live a long and happy life!” There are two different adjective forms — “alive” and “live”, which we use in subtly different contexts — as in “I was feeling really alive today, so I went out and bought some live fish.” It is peculiar to have these two different adjectives, but even more peculiar that the adjective “live” (rhymes with “hive”) has a different pronunciation than the verb “live” (rhymes with “give”), even though both have the same spelling. To add to this confusion, the plural of “life” is “lives”, as in “The bigamist was secretly leading two different lives.” This plural noun rhymes with “hives”, but is spelled the same as the verb “lives” (as in “He lives!”), which rhymes with “gives”.

The word “life” is from the Old English word līf, of Germanic origin. The corresponding word in German is Leib, and the word in Dutch is lijf. The three main Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian) all use the word liv. So the word for “life” is quite consistent across the various Germanic and Scandinavian languages. The verb “to live” (meaning “to be alive”) is also similar and consistent across these languages — leben in German, leven in Dutch, and leve in Danish. In English we also use the verb “live” to mean “reside”, as in “I live in Georgia”. In that case, you would use wohnen in German, wonen in Dutch, and bo in Danish or Swedish.

The Romance languages (that is, the languages descended from Latin, which was the language of ancient Rome) are also consistent among themselves. In each of these languages, the word for “life” is descended from the Latin word for life — vita. In Italian, the word is still vita. In Spanish and Portuguese the word is vida. And in French the word is vie. Several foreign expressions that use these words are often quoted by English speakers, such as the French “C’est la vie!” — which means “That’s life!” We typically use this expression to signal a fatalistic acceptance of recent events, similar to the English expression “These things happen!” Many people also know the Italian phrase la dolce vita, which literally means “the sweet life”, similar in intent to the English expression “the good life”.

English has quite a few words that trace back to the Latin word vita. The word “vitality” originally meant “having the power to live”, and has subtly shifted to mean “having health and strength”. The word “revitalize” literally means “to bring back to life”, although we now use the word to mean “to restore to a much better condition”. The word “vital” means “having to do with life” or “essential to life”. Therefore a paramedic will immediately check an accident victim for “vital signs”. The phrase “vital statistics” usually refers to population data about births, deaths, marriages, and divorces — arguably the four most important life events. But for many people, the word has lost its narrow meaning, and now simply means “essential”. So you might hear your friend say “Having a weekly massage is vital to me.” As you well know, your friend is not likely to die if she misses one of her weekly appointments.

The word “vitamin” is derived from the Latin word vita and the word “amine”, which is a chemical term referring to certain nitrogen-containing organic molecules. Back when the word “vitamin” was invented, vitamins were mysterious, unidentified compounds — although it was assumed that they were amines. What was known for sure was that these mysterious substances are essential for life. The existence of these compounds was deduced from observing the correlation between people’s diets and certain mysterious diseases — such as scurvy, pellagra, beriberi, and rickets. Each of these diseases could be cured by giving the person certain foods. Therefore it became clear that something in each of these foods was a nutrient essential to life. Because the chemical nature of these “vitamins” was unknown, each was designated with a letter — Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, and so on. Scientific research continued, and eventually the chemical formula for each of these vitamins was discovered. It turns out that there is a wide range of chemical structures among vitamins — not just amines. What they have in common — other than being essential to life — is that the human body is unable to manufacture these compounds by recombining other molecules. This sets the vitamins apart from such compounds as proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, which the body can assemble from smaller components.

The Latin word for the verb “to live” is vivere. Note that the third letter is “v”, instead of the “t” we see in vita. If we look at the corresponding verb in the major Romance languages, again we see consistency. The Italian word is vivere, unchanged from the Latin. The Spanish verb is vivir, the Portuguese verb is viver, and the French verb is vivre. In English we have a great number of words that trace back to the Latin vivere. The word “vivacious” has a meaning similar to “lively” — and of course “lively” is directly derived from “live”. The word “vivid” originally meant “full of life”, but now it usually means intense, brilliant, or exceptionally clear. A “vivarium” is an enclosure for displaying living animals and plants in a natural-looking setting. The word “viviparous” means to give birth to live young, instead of laying eggs. And “vivisection” is the controversial process of dissecting a living creature.

We also have words in English where the “viv-” part is preceded by a prefix, which modifies the meaning of the word. The prefix “re-” means “again”, and therefore the word “revive” literally means to make alive again or to bring back to life. (Compare this word to “revitalize”.) The prefix “con-” means “with”, and therefore the word “convivial” literally means living with others, or enjoying life in the company of others. We therefore use the word to mean “fond of eating and drinking with friends”. The word “survive” means to stay alive, especially in a situation where staying alive is difficult. The prefix “sur-” means over, above, or beyond — so the implication of the combined word is “living longer than what might be expected”. Although the word traces back to Latin, it came into English from the French survivre. The Spanish word for survive is sobrevivir –where sobre also means over, above, or beyond.

Most English speakers are familiar with expressions of the form “Viva …!”, which is usually translated as “Long live …!” For example, the Spanish phrase ¡Viva la revolución! means “Long live the revolution!” But “Viva…” can have other, slightly different meanings. In 2008 the British band Coldplay released a hit song named “Viva la Vida”, whose title could be interpreted as “Live the life”, “Long live life”, or “May life live”. This was not the first time that the expression was used in an artistic endeavor. One of the best-known works by Frida Kahlo, the famous Mexican painter, was also called “Viva la Vida” — a painting that was created in the 1950s.

The opposite of life is, of course, death. In English, “death” is a noun, “dead” is an adjective, and “die” is a verb. The modern word “death” is essentially unchanged from the Old English word, although the pronunciation has evolved. (Linguists spell the Old English word as dēath, with a diacritical mark to indicate that the “e” sound is elongated. However, the original Old English texts do not include such marks.) Likewise, the spelling of “dead” is unchanged from the Old English word. In contrast, the word “die” did not come from Old English at all. Instead, it is thought to have come from the Old Norse word deyja (pronounced “day-yah”). In Iceland, the word deyja is still used to mean “die”.

In modern Germanic and Scandinavian languages, words that refer to death are usually similar to the English words. For example, the Danish words for “death”, “dead”, and “die” are død, døde, and . The German words are Tod, tot, and sterben — which makes one wonder where that third word came from. Apparently the earlier German word for “die” — a word similar to tot — became a taboo word, and was substituted by a euphemism (originally sterban or stervan) which literally meant to become stiff or rigid. The same thing happened in Dutch, where “to die” is sterven. The same thing also happened in English, but here the story becomes oddly complicated.

In Old English, just as in German and Dutch, the original word for “die” became a taboo word, and was substituted with a euphemism. This new way to say “die” was steorfan, nearly identical to the corresponding word in the other Germanic dialects of the time. Over the centuries, the pronunciation of the word changed, and in modern English the word has become “starve”. However, the word has obviously acquired a much narrower meaning. The word no longer means “die”, without reference to any particular cause. Instead, the word now means to die from a very specific cause — hunger. This left a void in the English language — because we need a word that actually means “die” — and this void was filled with the word “die”, originally acquired from the Vikings in eastern England, the neighbors who spoke Old Norse.

Because of the unusual manner in which English acquired the word “starve”, the word is quite distinct from the word “hunger”. But in other Western European languages, the words for “hunger” and “starve” are closely related to each other. For example, the German word for hunger is Hunger (just as in English), and the word for starve is verhungern. The French word for hunger is faim, and the word for starve is affamer. These two French words are both derived from famēs, the Latin word for hunger — the same origin as the English words “famine” and “famished”.

In the Romance languages, the most common words for “death” and “dead” are usually derived from the corresponding Latin words mortis and mortuus. For example, the French word for “death” is mort, and the Portuguese word for “dead” is morto. The English word “mortuary” comes from the same root, which is no surprise. However, it is surprising that the word “mortgage” has a similar heritage. Specifically, the word “mortgage” is from the Old French, a combination of the word mort, meaning “dead”, and the word gage, meaning “pledge”. A mortgage gives a lender a claim upon a property until the debt is repaid. In the context of the medieval society where the word was coined, the borrower would pledge repayment to the lender, but if the borrower died before repayment could be made, then the lender took the property instead.

The English word “mortify” also traces back to Latin by way of Old French. At one time the word meant to die. The word was used most often in the context of gangrene, when parts of the body die. For example, if your toes suffered a serious frostbite, then you had to be careful not to let the toes mortify. Now the word simply means to be ashamed or humiliated, as in “I was completely mortified by what she said to me!” The idea expressed here is similar to the expression “I nearly died from embarrassment!”

In Italian, one common word for “dead” is morto, just as in Portuguese. But an even more common word is defunto, which literally means “finished off”. The word comes from the Latin dēfūnctus, which is also the origin of the English word “defunct”, as in “That entire line of personal computers is now defunct.” In French, the most common word for “death” is décès. The original Latin word meant to go away or depart, but even in Latin the word became a euphemism for death. In English we have inherited the word as “deceased”, which can be compared to the popular phrase “dearly departed”.

There is a close relationship between the concepts of “die” and “kill”. The first means to experience death, and the second means to cause death. And yet in English the two words have unrelated origins. The word “kill” comes from the Middle English kyllen, of uncertain origin. However, it is probably related to the word “quell”, which comes from the Middle English quellen, which in turn came from the Old English cwellen, which meant to kill.

In certain other languages, there is a direct and obvious connection between the words for “dead” and “kill”. In German the word for “dead” is tot, while the word for “kill” is töten, which literally means to make dead. Likewise in Dutch, “dead” is dood and “kill” is doden. In Swedish, “dead” is död and “kill” is döda. In English the same process resulted in the word “deaden”, where the suffix “-en” means “to cause to be”. So we can talk about using novocaine to deaden the pain, or using novocaine to kill the pain. But in modern usage the word “deaden” no longer implies literal death. The word simply means to suppress or lessen a sensation. We don’t talk about using poison to deaden a nest of roaches, or about Bob trying to deaden Ted.

As a side note, it is rather intriguing that “en” can be either a prefix or a suffix, and in either case it means “to cause to be”. We use “en-” as a prefix in such words as enrich, enslave, endear, enlarge, and enable. We “-en” as a suffix in such words as deaden, deafen, moisten, straighten, and tighten. And on rare occasions, we use it as prefix and a suffix at the same time, as in the word “enlighten”.

Across the Latin languages, the words that mean “kill” and “die” are unrelated to each other. The Spanish and Portuguese word for “kill” is matar, which despite its resemblance to the Latin mortis, is not directly related. Instead, the word is derived from the Latin mactāre, meaning to sacrifice, or to make a sacrificial offering to a god. Over time the word matar has acquired a broader meaning, and it now just means to kill. But the word matador — the chief performer in a bullfight — has retained some of its original flavor, because the entire event is a form of ritualized animal sacrifice.

The Italian word for “kill” is uccidere, and in Romanian the word is ucide. Both words are derived from occidere, the Latin word for “kill”. In English we have a great number of words derived from the same Latin origin. The typical format is to combine the suffix “-cide”, meaning to kill, with a prefix that indicates what is being killed. This format has yielded a long list of English nouns such as homicide, suicide, genocide, pesticide, insecticide, and herbicide.

In English we distinguish between “kill”, which is to cause any death (even that of a houseplant), and “murder”, which is to commit a serious crime by intentionally killing a person. This same distinction shows up in many other languages. The German word ermorden, which means “to murder”, is from the same Germanic origin as the English word. The Spanish word for murder is asesinar, derived from the Italian assassinare, which is also the origin of the English words “assassinate” and “assassin”. The Italian word traces back to the Arabic word hashshāsīn, which literally means “hashish users”. The word was originally a derogatory term referring to a secret order of revolutionaries in the eleventh century, who posed a military threat to parts of the Persian Empire. Over the centuries, the term came to be associated with the concept of ruthless killers. In English, the term “assassinate” is associated with the murder of political figures — which in fact was a favorite tactic of the revolutionaries for whom the word is named.

This concludes our journey through a web of words associated with the concepts of life and death. I hope that you have found the experience to be lively and revitalizing. Long live your love of language!

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