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To ‘retain’ something is to hold it back. After the braces on someone’s teeth have been removed, the orthodontist makes him wear ‘retainers’ for a few months, in order to hold back the teeth in their new position. The word ‘retainer’ is also used for a servant who was so faithful and sincere that the family did not let him go; they held him back, and he has been serving them ever since, for all these years. A train of such retainers is called a ‘retinue’. Only a queen or a neta or a seth can usually afford one.


A retentive mind is good at remembering; it holds back everything that passes through it once.


When you abstain from a lecture, you hold yourself away from it. The noun form of abstain is abstinence, obviously meaning ‘holding yourself away from something’. This ‘something’ is usually taken to be meat or alcohol. A guy who has taken a vow of total abstinence will not touch liquor no matter how much his friends pressurize him.

Then, there are the brahmacharis and the nuns who ‘hold themselves together’ in the face of sexual temptations. This especially difficult form of abstinence is called continence, and the continent nuns have just begun telling us their experience on the matter when Europe and Asia and their five siblings wail out, “But we are continents too!” Oh, they are feeling jealous and left out! “Of course, of course you are continents too!” We placate them, “In fact, the moment anyone says ‘continent’, it is you all that everybody thinks of. Where would we be without you?” Ah, they are grinning once more.


But between us, let me tell you that they are called ‘continents’ only out of laziness by people. The proper Latin term for them was terra continens meaning ‘continuous land. But who would say two words each time? So, people just kept terra aside and made do with continent.


Continence also refers to the ability to hold oneself back when one cannot see any toilet around. The poor guy who cannot do that is suffering from incontinence. Fearing a public accident, he has stopped going out. His friends are puzzled; why is he suddenly avoiding them all? They do not know; he has not been able to tell anybody, even the thought mortifies him.


Orthodontist: (n) a doctor who sets teeth straight.

Origin: Gk ortho-, straight + dontos, teeth


Retentive: (adj) capable of retaining, that is, holding back; having good memory.

Origin: L re-, back + tenere, to hold

  • The term water retention means an abnormal accumulation of water in the body.

Abstain: (v) to stay away from.

Origin: L abs-, away + tenere, hold => ‘to hold away from oneself ’


Abstinence: (n) staying away from meat, alcohol or other temptations; self-restraint.

Origin: from abstain


Abstemious: (adj) one who eats or drinks very little.

Origin: L ab-, away + temetum, alcohol.

  • Notice that abstemious contains all the vowels in alphabetical order.

Continence: (n) staying away from sexual intercourse.

Origin: L com-, together + tenere, to hold => ‘to hold oneself together’

  • These three words all relate with the idea of restraining from sexual intercourse: continent, celibate, chaste.
    Continent: The word just tells you that the person is not sexually active currently. It does not mean that he never was. A married person who gives up family life and takes sanyas will be called a continent.
    Celibate: This word implies that the person has taken a vow to never marry or have sexual relations.
    Chaste: This means that the person is not indulging in any immoral sexual activity. The society frowns upon premarital sexual relations. So, when applied to an unmarried person, the word means that he or she has not had sexual intercourse ever. But this word can also be applied to a married person. In this context, it means that the person has stayed faithful to his spouse.

Sibling: (n) a brother or sister.

  • What are the five other siblings of Europe and Asia? Africa, Antarctica, Australia, North America, and South America.

Yes, continuous is a ten- word too.

Origin: L con-, together + tenere,to hold => ‘to hold together’


Incontinence: (n) lack of self-control, especially while indulging one’s desires; unable to control the discharge of urine and feces.

Origin: in-, not + continence

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