My wife asked me why “refrain” means such different things as a noun and as a verb, and the answer turns out to be interesting: the two have completely different histories. The verb refrain is (via French) from Latin refrenare, which is derived from frenum ‘bridle’; when you refrain from doing something, you are (etymologically) reining yourself in. The noun refrain is from a French alteration of Old French refrait, the past participle of refraindre ‘to break up,’ from Vulgar Latin *refrangere, an alteration of Latin refringere, derived from frangere ‘to break’; the refrain of a poem or song breaks it up into stanzas. You learn something every day!


  1. Your wife should ask you more questions; they lead to interesting posts. See mafficking.

  2. John Emerson says

    The word “compound” meaning “a group of buildings inside an enclosure” is completely unrelated to the other uses of the word “compound”. It’s derived from the Malay “kampung”. But a folk etymology is easy to devise.

  3. a folk etymology is easy to devise.
    Slightly related: I believe that my sister once had an otherwise competent teacher who pronounced and spelled the word compound (as in compound word) “countpound”.

  4. marie-lucie says

    Thank you for these etymologies, LH. The French equivalent of “to refrain” is (se) refréner, from Latin refrenare, but it must be either a late borrowing from Latin or a respelling, because without the (here) intensive prefix re- there is freiner which means literally “to brake” or figuratively “to put the brakes on” (in order to impede a motion or an impulse).

  5. I’ve used the word “frenos” (Sp. “brakes”) my whole life and never knew it had something to do with a bridle, and it makes perfect sense. You really do live and learn.
    Slightly related to “countpound”: I’ve encountered a surprising number of people who pronounce tenet with an epenthetic ‘n’ before the last ‘t,’ resulting in “tenent.” Maybe something similar is going on.

  6. If you believe that, sir …
    This reminds me that the norsk word for a horse’s halter is grime & if I had a proper Norwegian etymological dictionary I would look up where grime comes from. It maybe isn’t from German, cos a halter is eine Halfter, at least it is nowadays.

  7. Noli me frangere
    Da. grime: ON grima ‘mask, helmet’, English grime ‘dirt’ * unknown origin

  8. Victor Sonkin says

    Re all those wonderful unrelated etymologies (‘island’ comes to mind): why do some people pronounce ‘ancient’ as ‘anxent’? (Including at least one American professor of ancient Egyptian history.)

  9. Sorry, AJP, it’s das/ein Halfter.

  10. why do some people pronounce ‘ancient’ as ‘anxent’?
    I don’t know what pronunciation you intend by that spelling; everyone I know pronounces it /’einšnt/ (if that’s clear: the /n/ is syllabic).

  11. Artifex Amando says

    When looking up the Swedish version, “grimma” (getting the same result as Sili), I noticed this interesting item close by: Grimas, from French “grimace”, of Spanish “grimazo” panic fright (“grima” fear), possibly of German etymology.

  12. Trond Engen says

    Bjorvand and Lindeman says that the meaning “halter” developed from “mask”, from an even older “film of mud”. They see possible relations in
    Lithuanian: a verb represented by griejù 1sg. “I remove floating cream from the milk” and an m-suffixed noun greimas m. “cream layer on milk” (my translations to English, nuances get lost where I lack dairy terminology)
    Greek: khri- of khristos “anointed”.
    However, the Greek and Lithuanian connections are apparently mutually exclusive for phonological reasons, and B&L land on the Lithuanian.
    Anyway, I don’t understand (which is not to say that they don’t have an obvious reason) why they don’t include Norwegian gris “pig” and its likely cognates in German greis “grey” etc. into a basic concept “smear (with fat or clay)” or some such.
    And, thinking of it, what about cream? No, that’s from Greek khrisma “ointment” and already covered.

  13. mollymooly says

    [insurance] policy and [government] policy are etymologically distinct.
    Insert recession-related jokes here.

  14. The word “compound” meaning “a group of buildings inside an enclosure” is completely unrelated to the other uses of the word “compound”. It’s derived from the Malay “kampung”.
    Apparently also unrelated to “pound” meaning an enclosure for animals.

  15. Jennifer Allen Rueda says

    Same as Marc, I immediatly noticed the cognate to “frenos” or “frenar”–> Latin frenāre.

  16. Artifex Amando says

    As with the Norwegian presang in another post’s comments, in Swedish “refrain” is spelt “refräng”. “Present” (gift) is spelt “present” (and pronounced without nasalization) in Swedish, though. I guess it depends on from which language the word is borrowed, and in which era.

  17. Thanks, Bruessel. It’s a long time since I’ve spoken any German; all corrections are welcome.

  18. Victor Sonkin says

    I meant /’einkšnt/, but that must be not as widespread as I thought.

  19. mollymooly says

    @Victor Sonkin:
    /’eiŋ(k)šnt/ is plausible.

  20. marie-lucie says

    Sili: Da. grime: ON grima ‘mask, helmet’, English grime ‘dirt’ * unknown origin
    There is a French verb grimer which means ‘to make up’ a person to be unrecognizable, a word especially used of actors. According to the Petit Robert this verb is from an older noun un grime meaning ‘ridiculous old man’ or ‘actor playing such a part’, and the verb referred to making up an actor to look like an old man. The ultimate origin is thought to be a hypothetical Frankish word grima meaning ‘mask’. You can see how the dark make-up needed to draw lines for wrinkles on someone’s face would fit in with the English meaning of “grime”.

  21. There used to be a Swiss watch designer, a jeweller called Andrew Grima. Unfortunately, I think he was British.

  22. Victor Sonkin says

    Is it a possible variation or a pronunciation mistake?

  23. Is it a possible variation or a pronunciation mistake?
    Sounds like a mistake to me, but it might be a dialect I’m not familiar with.

  24. Trond Engen says

    If there’s a root *gHrei- “smear; mask” with cognates in Germanic, Baltic and/or Greek, why not even Latin frēnare?
    Far out? Somebody will rein me in.

  25. The English language never ceases to facinate me! This is another fine example. I would never have considered the difference or known why. Thanks! Next time I sing a refrain I’ll try not to refrain from putting my heart and soul into it. Groan!

  26. John Emerson says

    That’s odd, Nhys, I’ve always thought the English language was boring as fuck.

  27. I wasn’t absolutely positive Nhys was a spammer, so I left her comment and just deleted her URL. Nhys, if you’re reading this and your feelings are hurt, I’m sorry, but your prose style is uncannily spammeresque.

  28. Your spam style, on the other hand …

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