A Little Latin

Memento Mori

When I was probably in third grade, my father started showing me how to break words down so I could make a reasonable guess at their meaning, even when they were unfamiliar to me. One of the best things he ever taught me was to be aware that many words, particularly polysyllabic, technical ones, derive from either Latin or Greek. Over the years, this tip has helped me tremendously.

Today, let’s not consider big words. Instead, let’s look at a simple word fine. Here are three English words that derive from it.

Define

Confine

Refine

These three words share a single Latin root, finare. This word means simply “to end” and yet its depth of usage in English is quite astounding. Ironically, we almost never use it to mean “end”

Today, we do not say something has come to its fine although most Romance language maintain that word in its original meaning. Instead, we use the Germanic word end. Our word fine has come to mean an end result, the end of a process.

That is what we mean by fine gold. It is also why we refine precious metals. The process of purifying most precious metals requires repeated heating processes – quite literally you are repeatedly taking the metal to its end.

To define is to “describe the ends”, so defining a word or an idea means you are setting the parameters of that word. You literally define its meaning, because a word does not mean anything outside of the “ends” of its meaning.

To confine someone or something is to keep him or it within the defined boundaries.

Whenever God defines something (or someone), he sets limitations or parameters. These are not restrictions. They are realities. God knows what our limits are. Those limitations have purpose. In fact, you might say they force us to work together.

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