All this talk of the roots of words has, naturally, lead me to the word itself. So where does “root” come from?
Let’s start with Middle English, where we find various forms, such as roote, rote, rot. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, dating from 1390, in the Miller’s Tale, we find:
Swete..is the roote Of licorys.
(Sweet is the root of liquorice)
Here the modern word can be easily recognised, of course. But where did it come from? Can we find it in Old English?
Well, we can indeed, but only in late Old English, where it appears as rot. Now, this may have come from Old English wrótan, which meant “to dig up, root out”, as seen here in this extract from the Codex Exoniensis, or Exeter Book, from 1072:
Swín on bócwuda wrótende
(Swine root up beechwood)
However, it is thought more likely that it came from a Scandinavian source, probably Old Norse rot, meaning “root”.
Both the Old Norse word and the Old English would have come from the same earlier source – Proto-Germanic *wrot, meaning “root, herb, plant”. This, in turn, is likely to have come from Proto-Indo-European *wrad-, meaning “twig, root”. This would make “root” a cognate of “radish”, which makes perfect sense, considering that “radish” literally means, guess what, “root”! A radical idea? Not at all, considering that this other cognate, radical, comes from the Latin word for root, radix, which also developed from the Proto-Indo-European base.