Jun 19 • 3M


Man, oh man.

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Knowing cognates can strengthen your vocabulary skills.
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paterfamilias — the male head of a household is its original meaning; the father of a family

paterfamilias — the Spanish cognate of the same meanings

It varies only slightly in Italian to “paterfamilia.”

The Latin word of “familia” originally referred to one’s household, which included people related to you by blood as well as people who served you, so that’s why the original meaning of this word simply denotes the male head of a household. He would have been the eldest male, and he would have had authority over everyone in the household.

Since the word “family” has changed a bit over the years, we are more accustomed to using “paterfamilias” to mean the father of a family instead of, or in addition to, the male head of the household. The word “pater” comes from Latin by way of Greek, but in English the word “father” comes down to us from Old English which probably took the word from Old High German’s “fater,” so that’s why we have the initial “f” instead of a “p” like the Romance languages have in their words for “father.”

In Spanish, it’s “padre.” In Italian, it’s “padre.” In French, it’s “père.”

That “pater” survives, though, in our English words of “paternal” and “paternity” and “paternalism” as well as “paterfamilias.” If you are Catholic, you may hear the term “Pater Noster” being used in church to refer to the Lord’s Prayer. “Pater Noster” is Latin for “Our Father.”

If you study Spanish, one of the early vocabulary words you will learn is “padre” along with other family words. Often I would have students bring up the baseball team of the San Diego Padres, and they’d want to know if that meant the San Diego Fathers. No. Not in the sense of biology. It actually means the San Diego (or the Saint James) Priests because Padre is used in Spanish to refer to the Catholic priests, or fathers.

Interestingly, the plural of “paterfamilias” is “patresfamilias” because “patres” is the plural of “pater” in Latin. Also, you can write the word as two separate words and have “pater familias” if you prefer, but dictionaries tend to show it as one word.

I’m sending this edition out a day early, so you can receive it on Father’s Day. Refer to your father as the “paterfamilias,” and see if he knows what that is. I’m hoping he does because it’s a fairly common word despite its ancient origins. The thing I like about it is that it’s the same word in English and Spanish, and you can branch off it to learn other words in both languages.

Have a great day. Hug your “pater.” Until next time. Please share this with anyone you know who likes to learn about words. Thanks.

Tammy Marshall

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