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A Latin proverb very wisely says: Quae nocent docent. That which hurts, teaches.


The Latin word nox means ‘harm, injury.’ The most common word from nox is ‘innocent’, ‘incapable of hurting, harmless.’ The word innocuous too has a parallel etymology and meaning. What would be the opposite of innocent and innocuous? Something that does cause harm. Such a thing is said to be noxious. The other words from nox are obnoxious and nocebo.


IE     mer-         to die



Did you immediately exclaim that the vernacular word marna is from this root? Now, enjoy some more.

Look at the word mard. Seen here under this root, did a light bulb suddenly go on? Mard is a Persian word and it means ‘the one who will die one day, a mortal.’

The Persians called their local species of tiger—the Caspian Tiger—mardamkhor, meaning ‘man-eater.’ The word entered Greek as martikhora and slowly became mantikhora. Next heard, it was mantichora in Latin and finally, it arrived in English as manticore. Also see what happened to the tiger during this journey. The English people think that a manticore is a beast with the head of a man, the body of a lion and the tail of a serpent!

The Latin word mordere has also probably developed from the image of a mardamkhor killing and eating its prey. It means ‘to bite, to grind down.’ The words that have developed from mordere are:

Morsel, mordant, remorse

The Latin for death is mortis and morire means ‘to die.’ The words they produced are:

Mer-1: Murder, mortal, immortal, mortify

Mer-2: moribund, mortuary, mortician

Mer-3: postmortem, amortize, morbid

The Indian mythology said that Amrita (a-mrita) was the drink of gods by drinking which a mortal could overcome mrityu.  The Greek word with a parallel etymology is Ambrosia. Ambrosia was the food of gods and anybody who ate it was said to become immortal.



Confer: (v) to bestow a gift, etc., upon; to discuss; (n) conference.
Origin: L con-, together + ferre, to carry => ‘to bring together’

Innocuous: (adj) harmless
Origin: L in-, not + nocere, to harm => ‘that which can do no harm’

  • Most computer viruses have such innocuous subject lines—‘Hello’, ‘Wassup?’, ‘Found this on the Net, thought you might like it’, ‘I love You’, ‘how are you’, ‘check it out’, ‘thought this was interesting’—that most people end up opening the mails and get infected.
  • The terrorists often use innocuous words to deflect potential eavesdroppers. They may use “baby food” for bombs, “baby” for their target, “mother” for their operations’ chief, etc.

Eavesdropper: (n) one who listens to others’ conversations secretly.
Origin: Eave + drip => ‘the one who stands under the eave to listen to the conversation that is going on inside the house or room.’ Eave is that
part of a sloping roof that hangs down the wall.
Innocuous is used far more commonly than its opposite—nocuous

Noxious: (adj) harmful
Origin: L noxa, harm.

  • This is a noxious plant which blights the soil it grows in.
  • Burning plastic releases noxious gases.
  • The soldiers were ordered not to eat the plant because it was noxious. But they were dying anyway from hunger. They wandered about the fields seeking it and dug it out and ate it.

Obnoxious: (adj) unbearably offensive.
Origin: L ob- + noxa, harm => ‘harmed’ => ‘damaged’ => ‘deserving criticism’ => ‘behavior that deserves to be criticized’

  • The way the lower castes are treated in India is really obnoxious.
  • Jyoti was fuming after her America-returned cousin went away. “What does he think he is? The king of the world? And what are we?

Paupers? The way he was bragging about his cars and his dollars and his gold chains….it was just so….so obnoxious!”

  • “The Ransom of Red Chief ” is a story by O. Henry in which two men kidnap a boy of 10. The boy turns out to be so spoilt and obnoxious that the harried men ultimately pay the boy’s father $250 to take him back.

Nocebo: (n) a substance which is not actually harmful but which will cause a bad effect on a person’s body because he believes very strongly that it will harm him.
Origin: L nocebo, I am harmful. Compare, placebo

Vernacular: (adj) using the everyday language spoken by the people of an area.

  • The song ‘Mile sur mera tumhara’ is a beautiful amalgamation of the vernacular languages of different parts of India.
  • We have a penchant for mixing vernacular words and expressions with English, as in ‘yeh dil maange more’, be cool yaar’, hungry kya?’, ‘chakaachak chick’, ‘masaala movie’, ‘pukka promise’, ‘fruit-wala’ etc. We now even have words for this mixed language—Hinglish (Hindi+English), Pinglish (Punjabi+English), Tinglish (Tamil+English) etc

Morsel: (n) bite

  • When the mother-in-law got up to give her son-in-law a second serving of the dessert, he put his hand over his plate. “No, no, please mama! My stomach doesn’t have the space for another morsel.”

Mordant: (adj) biting, extremely sharp.

  • A book which has been praised even by the most mordant critics must be very good, indeed.

Remorse: (n) painful guilt about past mistakes.
Origin: L re-, back + mordere, to bite => ‘when a person’s conscience bites back at him and does not let him live in peace’

  • Mr Gyandhari was not angry that his son made mistakes. What he found infuriating—and insulting—was his utter lack of remorse.
  • The Hindi saying ‘ab pachhtaaye kya hot jab chidiyaa chug gayi khet’ means that there is no use of feeling remorseful after a wrong is done; feeling remorse now will not correct the past mistakes.

Mortify: (v) to punish one’s body by inflicting pain on it or by denying its needs; to embarrass very much.
Origin: L mortis, death => ‘kill one’s body’ => ‘kill bodily desires’
Mortis, death => ‘to make someone wish death’ => ‘to shame someone’

  • Many religions endorse the practice of ‘mortification of the flesh.’ In its simple form, it may involve abstaining from things that give the body pleasure, like drinking alcohol, eating delicious food, sex, luxuries, etc. Some people take it to extremes by beating themselves with whips, or in the case of Christians, piercing their body with nails, so as to remind themselves of the physical tortures the founding fathers of their religion went through.

Fasting, sunnat (circumcision), celibacy, etc., are all forms of mortification of the flesh. Shia Muslims flagellate themselves during the
Moharram procession to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of Muhammad.

  • Someone at the party lost her diamond necklace. Meeta’s bhabhi looked at her and studied her face. Meeta was mortified by the suspicion implicit in that gesture. Just because she was poor, her bhabhi thought she would steal too? Her cheeks burnt red in humiliation; tears burnt her eyes. She looked down, and thought of running away, away from all those rich, fake relatives, but no, she could not run away because that would convince them that she was, indeed, the culprit.

Moribund: (adj) dying, near death. It does not mean merely sick.
Origin: L mori, to die

  • Sonia Gandhi put life back into a moribund Congress.
  • In order to revive their moribund TV channel, the producers decided to start two reality shows, each with a big Bollywood celebrity as a host.

Mortician: (n) A person who works in a mortuary and prepares the dead for funeral and arranges the funeral. Also called an undertaker.
Origin: Mortuary, the place where dead are kept + -ician. Of course, the word ‘mortuary’ comes from L mortis, death.

  • The job of a mortician is one that will never disappear because people will always keep dying. His job includes preparing the body of the deceased for the final viewing, planning the funeral, overseeing the funeral rites and performing the cremation. He also embalms the body if it needs to be preserved. A squeamish man cannot make a mortician because the job includes many tasks that most would consider unsightly, such as draining blood from a body or sewing a dead body’s mouth shut.

Squeamish: (adj) who gets shocked or disgusted easily.
Amortize: (v) to pay off a debt in installments.
Origin: L ad-, towards + mort-, death => ‘to take towards death’ => ‘to kill slowly, in degress’

  • He was sure that the returns from his investment would be large enough to service his debt and amortize it over a five-year period.

Morbid: (adj) sick in body or in mind.
Origin: L mori, to die => morbus, sickness

  • Morbidity rate of a population is the number of people who fall ill during a time period divided by the number of people in the total population. The mortality rate of a population is the number of people who die during a time period divided by the number of people in the total population.
  • “Mama, I think that I will die young,” Suhani casually said as she lay on the couch with her mother, watching an accident in a movie. Her mother waved off her words. “These are just morbid fancies, nothing more.” “No mama, seriously. I can never imagine myself married or old. I have a very strong feeling that I will die young and in a road accident.”
  • Many of the children’s rhymes and stories are quite morbid. The child characters in them often get beaten or killed or kidnapped by demons or eaten by witches. For example, consider the following lullaby, which has been used by mothers to lull their little babies for centuries. It is about a baby whose cradle has been suspended from the branches of two neighbouring trees.

Hush-a-by babyon the tree top,
When the wind blowsthe cradle will rock.
When the bough breaksthe cradle will fall,
And down will tumble babycradle and all.


Lullaby: (n) a soft song that puts a child to sleep.
Lull: (v) to soothe someone and slowly put him to sleep.
Bough: (n) branch of a tree. Cousin of the Sanskrit baahu and Hindi baaju, both of which mean ‘arm.’

Ambrosia: (n) the food of gods
Origin: Gk a-, not+ mbrotos, mortos mortal => ‘of the non-mortals’ => ‘of the gods’


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