50 Latin roots that will help you understand the English language
50 Latin roots that will help you understand the English language
Anyone who has ever studied a stack of GRE vocabulary words or invested in a word-a-day calendar to try to expand their lexicon can attest to the fact that the English language is incredibly expansive. Data has shown that the average adult knows somewhere around 40,000 words in total, and that includes active (i.e., regularly used) and passive (i.e., familiar, but not utilized) vocabulary. Put that number up against the more than one million total words in the English language, and it becomes clear that the percentage of terms in English speakers’ everyday rotation is only a small fraction of the English language as a whole.
Looking at the sheer volume of the English vocabulary, one thing that helps make sense of the words is the notable patterns that emerge in light of its etymological roots; particularly, its Latin roots. Though Latin itself has often been referred to as a dead language, it is very much alive in the 80% of English terms that are borrowed directly from the ancient language and the over 60% of English words that have roots in Latin and Greek. In the same way that a new reader may try to sound out a word phonetically, looking at English through the lens of Latin etymology allows us to obtain a new grasp on the language, such that we can more actively deduce the meanings of unfamiliar words.
To identify key linguistic elements from Latin that appear throughout the English language today, Stacker sorted through educational resources and online databases and compiled a list of 50 important Latin roots that shape the English language as we know it. Read on to get a better understanding of how some of the words you use regularly—and a few perhaps you’ve never seen before—all share a common foundation in Latin.
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- Meaning in English: Yearly
The Latin root “ann”—which means “yearly”—can be found in countless words that reference events and occurrences that happen on a yearly basis. For example, an anniversary celebration marks the passing of another year of a relationship, a business, or a birthday. Then there are yearly events that are characterized as annual, such as award ceremonies (e.g., the Academy Awards), sporting events (e.g., Super Bowl), and holidays (e.g., Halloween).
- Meaning in English: Water, sea
Whether it’s being used in reference to a color such as aqua, a blueish-green hue, or to describe sea life, i.e., aquatic, the Latin root “aqu” is familiar in its relationship to water and large bodies of water. The mainstream familiarity of the Latin root was on full display in the 2006 coming-of-age film “Aquamarine,” where the titular character is a mermaid washed ashore.
- Meaning in English: Hearing, listening, sound
Those who prefer the convenience of listening to their books rather than reading them may recognize this Latin root from the name of Audible, Amazon’s audiobook and entertainment platform. The root also makes an appearance in the English terms audience, as in a group of people gathered together to listen to or receive a performance, and auditorium, the room in which said audience sits to listen.
- Meaning in English: Good
Derived from a Latin term meaning “well,” bene is most commonly used as a prefix in the English language. The word benign means harmless or favorable, and in pathology is used to describe a condition that is not life-threatening. A benefit is something that is considered favorable or advantageous, and the term can also be used to describe a charitable event. A benefactor gives help to a person or a cause. Perhaps the most famous example of a benefactor is Miss Havisham from “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens.
- Meaning in English: Two
The Latin prefix “bi” means two, as does the closely related, Greek-derived prefix “di.” A bifurcation describes the act of something splitting off into two distinct branches. In anatomy, the bicep is a muscle of the arm that runs between the shoulder and the elbow, so-named because it splits off into two branches where the muscle connects at the scapula. The word bicep translates to “two-headed muscle of the arm.”
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- Meaning in English: Book
The Latin root “bibl” may sooner remind college students of having to create bibliographies—detailed lists of the books and sources referenced in academic work—than anything else. However, the root’s connection to the English language has a far deeper history: “bibl” is also the root for the name of the Bible, the collection of Judeo-Christian texts and scripture.
- Meaning in English: Hundred
The term “cent” likely conjures up thoughts of money—i.e., dollars and cents—before anything else, but that ties back perfectly to the Latin root from which the term comes. One cent is 1/100th of a dollar. Pennies aside, the Latin root also makes an appearance in terms like “century” and “centennial,” which pertain to 100-year timespans and a hundredth anniversary, respectively.
- Meaning in English: Around
The Latin root “circum”—meaning “around”—appears in terms like “circumnavigate,” which is the act of traveling all the way around something. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan is remembered for successfully circumnavigating the globe in the early 16th century. This root also appears in terms like “circumvent,” which describes the act of getting around a problem, and “circumstance,” which pairs this root with another Latin root—“stance,” meaning “stand”—to reference a situation that focuses on a core cause.
- Meaning in English: Citizen
“Civility” is characterized by respect towards others, and “civics,” which refers to the infrastructure in place that is intended to facilitate civility, are both rooted in the Latin “civ,” meaning “citizen.” The root also makes an appearance in the name of the Honda Civic, a car that––as the brand puts it––is meant to improve the lives of citizens.
- Meaning in English: Clear
The term “clarity”—which comes from the Latin root “clar,” meaning “clear”—is the property of being both pure and clean, as well as being lucid and coherent. The root has seen a variety of modern uses alluding to its Latin translation, including the brand Clarisonic, a beauty company that develops products meant to provide clearer-looking skin, and Claritin, an allergy medication that promises clarity and relief from chronic allergies.
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- Meaning in English: Believe
Credibility is the characteristic of being believable, and it’s a term that comes from the Latin root “cred,” meaning “believe.” While the term may appear in the case of legal proceedings—e.g., a court case requires credible witnesses—it also ties into the idea of credit and credit cards. Since credit cards work by allowing users to acquire items before paying for them in full, they operate on a system of trust and good faith—belief, essentially—that payments will be made in full at a later time.
- Meaning in English: Say/speak
The Latin root “dict” appears in words like dictate, meaning to read something aloud; dictation, the act of speaking aloud with the intention of having your words recorded or transcribed; and predict, the act of stating something that will happen before it actually happens. Of all the instances in which “dict” appears in the English language, though, one of the most important may be the dictionary, which offers a comprehensive guide to all of the officially-recognized words in the English language. Some of the most respected and trusted dictionaries in the U.S. include the Oxford English Dictionary, Collins English Dictionary, and Merriam-Webster.
- Meaning in English: Out
The Latin root “ex” means “out,” while related roots, including “exter” and “extrem,” offer additional variations of the same translation. The word extreme, for example, may refer to something that falls out of a normal expected range, as was the case with weather extremities, including record rainfall and high/low daily temperatures across the U.S. in 2019, which broke more than 120,000 records across the country.
- Meaning in English: Break
The Latin “fract” is closely related to fellow Latin roots “frang,” “fring,” and “frag,” all of which mean “break.” A few of its familiar appearances may include infringe, as in the breaking of a legal agreement or violation of copyright, and fragment, a small piece of an item that has been broken. The root also appears in the word fragile, which can be used to describe items that are easily breakable.
- Meaning in English: Between
The premise of the film “Interstellar” starring Matthew McConaughey is that a NASA physicist travels the universe via a wormhole in a quest to find a new home for mankind. The plot––and the flick’s title––reference the Latin root “inter,” meaning “between,” as McConaughey’s character essentially travels between cosmic stars. This root also appears in terms like international, which may refer to travel or political relations between nations, and interpersonal, which may refer to communication happening between different people (as opposed to intrapersonal, which uses the Latin root meaning “within”).
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- Meaning in English: Law
Legal systems are intended to act as a source of order and justice in society, and it turns out that a lot of the legal terminology that we’re familiar with today stems from the Latin “jur”—as well as the related roots “jus” and “judic”—meaning “law.” This includes the word jury, as in the body of citizens meant to come to a verdict in legal cases; judicial, as in something pertaining to the court or judge; and justice, as in fairness.
- Meaning in English: Not tense
There are a number of ways that someone may choose to relax—yoga, unwinding with a good book, taking a bath, etc. Regardless of the method, the practice of relaxation just comes down to letting go of stress and releasing tension. The root origin of the term—the Latin “lax,” meaning “not tense”—is echoed in this way. The root also appears in the word laxative, which describes an agent used to relieve constipation by reducing tension in the bowels.
- Meaning in English: Free
Liberty—which is defined as freedom from oppression in regards to one’s belief systems and way of life—is a fundamental tenet on which democracy is built. As for the Latin word “liber,” this is a fundamental root from which the term “liberty” stems. Further examples of “liber” in mainstream English language include the words liberate and liberation.
- Meaning in English: Light
This Latin root meaning “light” appears in a number of common English words including luminous, which means that something is bright and shining. However, the Latin root has seen several linguistic iterations that go beyond these everyday terms as well, including brand names such as Luminary, a podcast streaming platform that may be considered to be bringing new and creative ideas “to light,” and fictional terms such as “lumos maxima,” the incantation used in the “Harry Potter” universe to generate a bright flash of light.
- Meaning in English: Big, great
The Latin root “magn,” meaning “big” or “great,” can be used either in reference to something physically large in size or something that big in its presence, such that it’s striking. In regular use today, the root appears in words like magnificent, which simply refers to something that’s amazing or awe-inspiring, and magnitude, which is used to characterize the large size or impact of something (e.g., a 3.2 magnitude earthquake).
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- Meaning in English: Bad
“Mal” is a Latin root meaning “bad,” and appears in such English terms as malicious, which is defined as having the intention to cause harm, as well as malevolent, which combines this root with another Latin root “volent,” which means “wishing.” Mal is defined as wishing evil or ill will upon another. Perhaps one of the most common pop culture affiliations with the root is “Maleficent,” the Disney film starring Angelina Jolie as the villainous fairy known for cursing Sleeping Beauty.
- Meaning in English: Wander
This Latin root is perhaps most prevalent in its connection to current events. Namely, “migr”—meaning “wander”—appears in the terms immigration and migrant, both of which have become majorly familiar in the collective consciousness as a result of such issues as the European migrant crisis as well as the U.S. border crisis and questions surrounding the country’s immigration policies.
- Meaning in English: Many
There are a multitude of examples in the English language of the Latin root “multi,” meaning “many,” in use (with multitude being one of them). The root is perhaps most notable for its role in arithmetic, as it occurs in multiplication, which is a mathematical process for growing a number in size and count. The root also appears in the title of the 1996 comedy “Multiplicity,” which stars Michael Keaton as a man who clones himself numerous times to manage the demands of his day-to-day life.
- Meaning in English: Say no
The Latin root “neg” appears in English words that are defined by a lack of positive or affirmative response. For example, the word negate means that something is being nullified or shut down, or, it’s being “said no to,” essentially. Negativity, a quality often associated with pessimism and naysaying, is another example of the root in action.
- Meaning in English: Not
When something is described as nonsensical, it means that it doesn’t make sense. When something or someone is characterized as noncommittal, it means that they won’t commit. These words—along with others that include “non” as a prefix—pull from the Latin root’s definition meaning “not.” It’s important to keep in mind that the line between “non” and “un” can get a little troublesome when navigating common vocabulary. For example, while unprofessional refers to behavior that isn’t professional, nonprofessional refers to lines of work that don’t require professional training.
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- Meaning in English: New
The allure of novels comes from their imaginative stories that can take readers away from the ordinary and mundane. A novel concept or innovative idea is characterized by offering something fresh and new, which all ties back to the Latin root “nov.”
- Meaning in English: Egg
While there are some English words beginning with “ov” that don’t tie back to this Latin root such as “oven,” which actually comes from Germanic origins, there are others that reference the root’s original definition: “egg.” Examples include oval, as in the egg-like shape, and ovary, as in the female reproductive organ that produces eggs.
- Meaning in English: Before
“Pre” is a Latin-derived prefix that clarifies chronological order by signifying that something came before something else. For example, predict means that you talk about something happening before it actually happens. The word preliminary is another example and means that something occurs prior to something else in preparation for the main event. Of course, “pre” also occurs in the word prefix itself, which by definition is a grammatical add-on to the beginning of a word—i.e., it comes “before” the original word—that changes its meaning.
- Meaning in English: First
In addition to words that reflect this root’s origins in its most literal sense such as primary, primordial, and primitive, there are also words derived from this Latin root that more loosely means best-in-class, or top-tier. One such example is the word prime, most commonly used in reference to Amazon Prime, the membership service that provides expedited shipping and a catalog of member-only streaming content for Amazon customers.
- Meaning in English: Nearness
When one makes an approximation of something, they’re making an educated guess about the count, measurement, or quantity of something based on information that allows them to come close—though maybe not exact—to the correct value. This word, along with others like proximity or proximal, comes from the Latin root “proxim,” meaning nearness.
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- Meaning in English: Seek
A Latin root that means “to seek” or “to look for,” “ques” appears in a number of words that English speakers use on a daily basis. Besides the very literal quest, which basically refers to a long search for something, there are also the terms question and request, both of which attempt to elicit some kind of response, information, or action.
- Meaning in English: Again, backward
This Latin root is one that could refer to something happening over and over again, as is the case with such words as repeat or recur. It may also, however, be used to reference something that moves backward by being withdrawn, as is the case with the words renege and revert.
- Meaning in English: Backward, behind
Retro has been a standalone word since the mid-1970s when it started getting used in reference to fashion nostalgia. Before that, though, the word existed in the Latin vocabulary as a prefix meaning “backward” or “behind.” Of all the words that include the prefix—e.g., retrogress, retroactive, retrospective—one of the most familiar nowadays may be retrograde, as in Mercury Retrograde (when Mercury appears to be moving backward in its orbit).
- Meaning in English: Healthy
This Latin root appears throughout the English language in a few different ways. For starters, it has a very literal and practical application in words like sanitize and sanitary, which simply refer to the eradication of bacteria so as to make something healthier and safer. However, the same root also occurs in the term sanity—and the opposite, insanity—which refers to mental health.
- Meaning in English: Know
The Latin root “sci” (meaning “know”) has a few different roles in English. For one, it can refer to the actual act of knowing things, as is the case with terms like omniscience (meaning all-knowing), conscience (knowing right from wrong), and prescience (knowing things before they happen). Beyond that, “sci” also ties into the accumulation of knowledge, as it is a key root in the term science and is thus connected to all scientific branches (formal, natural, and social sciences).
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- Meaning in English: Write
While a young child’s doodles on a piece of paper might be dismissed as nothing but a little scribble, it turns out that scribble has some roots in the Latin language. The root “scrib” actually means “write,” and appears in such terms as transcribe, the act of copying down words from a recording or dictation, and describe, the act of writing down (or saying) what something looks, feels, tastes, sounds, or smells like.
- Meaning in English: Half
The Latin root “semi” (meaning “half”) is central to a lot of the traditions that we consider to be commonplace. For example, there’s the idea of a semi-final, where two sports teams face off in a match directly before the final and only one—such as half of the two teams—moves on to the final. A lot of brands, most notably, Victoria’s Secret, are also known for having semi-annual sales: one at the start of the year in January and one around the half-way mark in June.
- Meaning in English: Feel
The Latin root “senti,” which is also close to the root “sens,” means “feel”—which is evident when looking at the English terms that have stemmed from the original root. The root is at the heart of our sensory system, which allows us to feel and experience things through our different senses. The classic book “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen interestingly juxtaposes two words that stem from this same Latin root in its title; here, sense is the ability to act with sound judgment and without being overly emotional, while sensibility refers to the ability to act from the heart or with feelings as a guide.
- Meaning in English: Group
In the most basic sense, the Latin root “soci” appears in the term society, which is very literally a group of people who coexist in some capacity, whether they’re connected by a common government, neighborhood, or even just common interests (e.g., the National Audubon Society). This Latin root is also at the core of one of the biggest trends to have shaped modern culture: social media and the rise of platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat.
- Meaning in English: Alone
While social networks bring people together—even if only virtually—togetherness isn’t always the name of the game. “Sol,” the Latin root for “alone,” is also a big player in the English language, and is used in words that refer to loneliness or lack of connection. For example, solitude and isolation are two words that pull from the root, as is the name for Solitaire, the computer card game meant to be played solo.
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- Meaning in English: Under
When The Beatles released “Yellow Submarine,” they may not have realized that they were incorporating some Latin-based lyrics in their hit song. “Sub” is the Latin root meaning “under,” and beyond showing up in the name of the underwater warship, the root also occurs in terms like submerge, which is the act of putting something underwater. The New York City subway system also employs the Latin root for the name of its network of underground trains and tracks.
- Meaning in English: Rise
Not to be confused with the root for surgery, which comes from the Greek words meaning “hand work,” the Latin “surg” means “rise.” For example, there’s been a “resurgence”: This combines the Latin root “re” with “surg”. Anyone who has attempted to call an Uber during rush hour or an “extreme” (if we’re using Latin) rainstorm is also likely familiar with the phenomenon of surge pricing, where rates increase as a result of heightened demand.
- Meaning in English: Time
Musicians understand that tempo is the speed of a song’s underlying beat, and thus that the tempo helps determine the timing of a piece of music. For those less musically-inclined, however, this Latin root may feel more familiar in words like temporary, meaning something that only lasts for a given period of time, and contemporary, meaning that something is of the current time.
- Meaning in English: Witness
Though the term “test” is a word on its own, the Latin root “test” is unrelated to the term meaning exam. Instead, the Latin here means “witness,” as in testimony, where someone shares their account of what they saw in a court trial. Legal proceedings aside, the root also appears in the word testament, which reflects a reliable account of something, such that it can be used as evidence to make a point.
- Meaning in English: Across
English terms that include the root “trans” are generally referring to something that has traversed a physical or imaginary border in some way. For example, the first trans-Atlantic flight was completed in 1919 by Charles Lindbergh when he spent 34 hours traveling from New York to Paris. A common use of the root is also in reference to transgender individuals, whose gender identity does not align with their birth sex.
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- Meaning in English: Empty
The Latin root “vac” appears in several highly-used English words, including what may be a collective favorite: “vacation.” Unlike certain terms that have a more literal tie to this root’s definition––e.g., “vacancy” means there are empty rooms in a space, “vacate” means emptying out a space, etc.––“vacation” is more of a loose derivative of the root, alluding to an empty schedule.
- Meaning in English: Wander
Of the Latin roots on this list, “vag” is one of the more unique in that it has a few different derivative words that reflect the term in unique ways. For example, while vagabond is a pretty literal extension of the Latin root, one of the other common derivative words—vague—reflects the meaning of the Latin root in a less direct way (i.e., it alludes to ideological “wandering” from the main topic).
- Meaning in English: True
“Ver” is one of the more common Latin roots to appear in the English language. There are some terms that include the root—verdict and veracity—that may be less frequently utilized in everyday jargon, but that’s hardly the case with one of the most popular words that stems from this root: very. Whenever something is described as very soft, for example, the intention of the speaker is to communicate that something is “truly” soft.
- Meaning in English: See, visual
While videotapes might have become obsolete, this Latin root, meaning “see,” is still kept alive in plenty of other key terms in the English language. One of the biggest, of course, is video, and though people’s sources of video entertainment have changed over the years, their affinity for it certainly has it. According to recent data, people watch an average of 16 hours of online video per week.
- Meaning in English: One
This root, meaning “one,” is incredibly prevalent throughout the English language. It appears in a wide range of words, including unicorn (a one-horned mythical horse), unity (one entity), uniform (one outfit), unicycle (one-wheeled bike), and unibrow (one eyebrow).
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