One of my Latin teachers used to say that “verbs are the root of all evil” so that we’d remember to learn, first and foremost, verbs and their forms. The phrase could also, jokingly, be applied to the etymology of the word paint, as the verb significantly predates the noun.

And what a varied family tree does the verb have! Through Old French peintier (to paint), which itself formed from an older form of the verb,  peindre. This came from the Latin pingere, which had the much wider meaning of “to paint, stain, embroider, tattoo”, thus providing us with a classic example of semantic narrowing – the process in which, over time, the meaning of a word becomes more specific.

Now things get really interesting. Most sources, such as the OED, stop at this stage, but the Online Etymology Dictionary goes on to suggest that pingere came from the Proto-Indo-European root *peik-, meaning “to cut”. An eccentric suggestion, it must be said, but one not without evidence. The suggested evolution of meaning is “to decorate with cut marks” to “to decorate” to “to decorate with colour”, and it can be traced through other derivatives of this PIE root which have retained some meaning from each stage. The Sanskrit pimsati (hews, cuts, carves, adorns) suggests the transition from “to cut” to “to decorate with cuts”, while the Sanskrit pesalah (adorned, decorated, lovely) provides some evidence for the original root to have held the meaning of just “to decorate”. Finally, we see the Old Church Slavonic pegu and the Greek poikilos, both meaning “variegated” providing the link to colour.

Although I am sure that the final link to PIE is subject to great debate, it shows how wonderfully interlinked and interwoven human language is across the globe and that languages of different groups have always influenced one another, as have the cultures, and thus it is a natural, beautiful process which ought to be embraced, not slowed.


Nescio ut hoc hodie scribam.


3 thoughts on “Paint and Cuts: Etymological Discourse

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