Word Connections: Strong & Weak

In this episode of Word Connections, we look at the words “strong” and “weak”, including the origins of the words, related words, and connections to other European languages.

When we think of the word “strong”, our first thought may be of a muscular person — as in a strong man or a strong arm. This concept of physical strength can be extended to internal organs, as in a strong heart. But we also use the word “strong” to mean intense, as in a strong cup of coffee, a strong wind, or a strong belief. The connection between these two meanings is the idea of having great force or power. Therefore a good synonym for “strong” is “powerful”.

The word “strong” comes from the Old English strang — the word hasn’t changed much in all the intervening centuries. The noun form of “strong” is “strength”, notable for having a different vowel than the verb. If you go back even farther than Old English, then “strong” and “strength” share a common origin with the German word streng, which means “strict” or “rigorous”.

The German word for “strong” is not streng, but stark. Likewise, the Swedish word for strong is stark. In English we also have a word spelled “stark”, but it’s hard to see a connection with the concept of “strong”. If you say “He was stark naked”, then “stark” means “completely”. If you say “This region has a stark landscape”, then “stark” means bleak or desolate. But “stark” is derived from the Old English word stearc, which meant stiff or strong. Therefore the English word “stark” really does have a “strong” connection to the German word stark. Most other Germanic and Scandinavian languages have similar words for strong. In Dutch and Norwegian the word is sterk, and the Danish word for strong is stærk.

The French word for “strong” is fort, from the Latin word fortis. The English word “fort” means a strong building that can be defended against an enemy. This word was a direct import from Old French, a legacy of the Norman Conquest. We also have the similar words “fortress” and “fortifications” — and again the words relate to strong defensive positions. We have several other words with “fort” as the root. To “fortify” means to make strong. The word “fortitude” originally meant physical strength, but now it means courage — a kind of moral strength.

The Italian word for “strong” is forte, and the Portuguese word is identical. Like the French word fort, these words came from the Latin word fortis. In English we use a great number of Italian terms in the context of musical performance, and so we use the word “forte” to indicate when a musical part should be played loudly or strongly. On an orchestral score, this is often abbreviated as the letter “f”. Likewise the word “piano” is used in a musical score to indicate when the music should be played softly, often abbreviated as the letter “p”. But in English, the word “piano” refers to a large musical instrument with a keyboard. So why would sheet music for a completely different instrument use the word “piano” as a signal to play softly?

When the piano was first invented, it was called a “pianoforte”. The name indicates the most important difference between a piano and its predecessors. Earlier keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord, employ a mechanism such that when a key is pressed, an attached lever plucks the corresponding string, causing a musical tone. But in a piano, the lever behind the key causes a hammer to strike the string instead. If you press the key softly, then the hammer strikes the string softly. If you press the key strongly, then the hammer strikes the string strongly. Therefore, a piano gives the player a great deal of control over the loudness of each note, a feature that was completely lacking in the harpsichord. In the context of music, the Italian word piano means “soft” or “quiet”, and therefore the original name of the instrument — pianoforte — actually means “soft-strong” or “quiet-loud”, a direct reference to the player’s control over the sound volume. Later, the name of the instrument was abbreviated to “piano”.

In addition to the word “forte” that we use in musical notation, we have another word in English that is also spelled “forte”. This word is also connected to the concept of “strong”, because it refers to a person’s special strength or talent. For example, we might say “Cooking pies is her forte.” Even though the spelling of the word is identical to the Italian word, this word actually came to us from the French as fort. We eventually added an “e” to the end of the word, which has led to some confusion. According to older dictionaries, this word is pronounced exactly the same as the English word “fort”. However, because the spelling is the same as the Italian word forte that we use in music, many people now pronounce the word in the same manner as the musical term.

The opposite of strong is “weak”, a word that is derived from the Middle English weke. This word, in turn, appears to have had a dual origin. In part, the word is derived from the Old English word wāc, which meant weak, pliant, or soft. But the word also appears to have been reinforced by the Old Norse word veikr, back when Old Norse was widely spoken in eastern England.

Words similar to the Old English wāc can be found in other Germanic languages. The Dutch word week means weak, soft, or tender, and the German word weich means soft. All of these words trace back to a proto-Germanic word meaning “to yield”. Another more common Dutch word for “weak” is zwak, and the German word for “weak” is schwach; these words also trace back to the same root. The Scandinavian languages use similar words. In Danish and Swedish the word for weak is svag. In Norwegian the word is svak. In Icelandic the word is veik, nearly the same as the Old Norse word.

The Spanish word for “weak” is débil, little changed from the Latin word dēbilis, which also means “weak”. The English word “debilitate”, which means to weaken or enfeeble, is from the same Latin origin. The Italian word for weak, debole, also shares the same origin.

The Portuguese word for “weak” is fraco, which comes from the Latin word flaccus. The Spanish word flaco, which means “skinny”, also comes from the same Latin root. The Latin flaccus also gave rise to the Latin flaccidus, from which we get the English word “flaccid”, which means limp, weak, or flabby.

The French word for “weak” is faible. In English we have a similar word “foible”, which means a weakness. For example, we might say “John’s greatest foible is his tendency to believe everything he is told.” The word “foible” comes from the Old French foible or faible. The English word “feeble”, which also means weak, comes from the Old French feble. All of these words trace back to the Latin word flēbilis, which means “lamentable” — so the meaning of the word has certainly evolved since Latin times.

It is rather unusual that the Spanish, Portuguese, and French translations of a particular word are all so different — in this case: débil, fraco, and faible. It is even more unusual that these different words all come from different Latin roots. But the upshot is that our English words “debilitated”, “flaccid”, “feeble”, and “foible” — all of which are related to the concept of weakness — all have cognate words in Romance languages. In Latin itself, the principal word for weak is īnfirmus, and this is obviously the origin of the English word “infirm”, meaning weak or feeble. Less obvious is that this is also the origin of our word “infirmary” — a place for treating the infirm and the injured.

The Greek word for weak is adýnamo, which literally means “without power”. Our English word “dynamic”, which originally meant “powerful”, is from the same root. A “dynamo” is a machine that can be cranked to generate electricity, so the connection to power is quite obvious. We also use the word “dynamo” to refer to a highly dynamic person. The word “dynamite” — also derived from the Greek word for power — was coined by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, and the founder of the famous Nobel Prize.

And with that final explosion of powerful words, we have reached the end of our story about “strong” and “weak”. But do not despair, because future episodes of Word Connections will soon appear, conveying more details about the origins and connections of some of our most common yet fascinating words.

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