Peace and its Distant Cousins

This is one of my favourite words when it comes to etymology. Years ago, this one word sparked my interest when I saw the Latin phrase “pax Romana” in a book and started to recognise it in other forms in English and realised that they were all connected. This one word helped to start me on the journey to discover language. Years later, when I learned its fascinating cognates in Modern Greek, the fires of interest had not dimmed at all.

So let’s examine “peace”. As I have already hinted in my first paragraph, it is related to the Latin word. But how did it reach us? It came from mid-12th century Anglo-French word pes, which was itself from Old French pais, meaning “peace, silence”. The French word developed from the Latin pacem (or pax in the nominative), which had a slightly different meaning; “agreement, peace-treaty, state of no war”. The words in Spanish (paz) and Italian (pace) also derive from here.

But can we trace it further? We can, and this is where it gets interesting. It comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *pag– / *pak “to fasten, to make stable/ steady”. This amazing root has given rise to such a host of vocabulary, it’s quite incredible. Not only do we have “peace” from there, but also “page” (via Latin pagina), and “-pact” in words like “compact”, “impact” also owes its origins to this root.

Now let’s take an intriguing look at some vocabulary in Modern Greek that has come from *pag– / *pak-. Remember that in English this has given us the word “peace”, and then look at:

πάγος (pagos) – ice

παγίδα (pagida) – trap

πηγή (pigi) – source

πάχνη (pachni) – frost

πήζω (pizo) – thicken, freeze

πάσσαλος (passalos) – stake, pole

As you can see, there is quite a variety there today! You can imagine my delight when I realised they were from the same root as “peace”! But it is not as bizarre as it might seem at first glance. The idea of stability perhaps gave rise to “peace”, but ice is also something stable that doesn’t move, and a pole, for example, tends to be something you make steady, or is used to make something else steady.


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