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Unshackling the roots of ‘impediment’

A hardworking ancient three-letter root turns out to be at the foot of many words across Indo-European languages.

Leg shackles are seen on the floor at Camp 6 detention center at the U.S. Naval Base, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2009.
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  • Ruth Walker

My latest bit of etymological learning came as much good learning does: on the way to finding out about something else.

What I learned: There exists something linguists call a Proto-Indo-European word root, a hardworking little knot of three letters, ped, meaning “foot,” which shows up in an astonishing range of words within the family of Indo-European languages, to which English and its kin belong.

The Online Etymology Dictionary has a solid paragraph of ped words.

This learning came as I was looking up impediment and also awaiting expedited arrival of a parcel.

The ped root shows up in, obviously, such words as pedestrian and pedicure.

The root is also a factor in antipodes – pairs of places on diametrically opposite points on the globe (the idea being that one’s feet are “anti,” or “against,” the feet of someone on the other side). The ped root gives us gastropod, literally “stomach foot,” the scientific term for snails and other mollusks that “walk” (loosely speaking) on their bellies.

And ped morphs into the English foot.

I got started with this while looking up impediment – an obstacle or hindrance, from a Latin verb meaning “to shackle or ensnare someone’s feet.”

This same metaphor of shackled feet gives French its verb empêcher. It means “to prevent,” and not, as you may surmise if you snoozed through French II, “to fill with peaches.” Empêcher is, however, a word cousin of our English impeach.

We come by our English prevent, though, from a different metaphorical path: that of “coming before” something with the implicit aim of keeping it from happening.

For example: A number of years ago I was touring Boston’s Back Bay with an out-of-town friend. We came upon one of those private clubs so very private it barely has a nameplate. I thought, though, we might pop in for a moment to look around the lobby as one sometimes does in a grand hotel.

But our approach activated the club’s riffraff-control system. Two polite young men literally came before us to ask, “May we help you?” Clearly, what they wanted to help us with was understanding that there was no way on earth we would get any closer to the building than we already were. 

Fair enough, a club is not a hotel. We withdrew and went our way. 

(I returned there recently as a ticketed guest, though. “I’m here for the [whatever] event,” I called cheerily over to the man behind the front desk as I breezed by. The riffraff-control system did not activate.)

OK, enough about shackling feet. What about unshackling, or unfettering? (Fetter is another ped descendant.)

We get expedition from Latin roots referring to making ready or preparing, based on the idea of taking off shackles.

One pictures untying the horses, unlocking the supply room, and so on. And we get expedited delivery – nothing stands in its way.

Excuse me, I do think I hear the doorbell.

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