The Provenance of Province.

I have previously praised A Thing About Words, the M-W Unabridged blog, by calling it “reliably interesting,” and so it is — but it is far more important for such a would-be scholarly venue to be accurate than interesting, and I regret to have to report a serious lapse in that regard. The recent post The Provenance of ‘Providence’ opens thus:

Provenance and provenience share the meaning of “origin” or “source,” with provenance also referring to the history of ownership of a work of art. Providence refers to divine guidance or care or the quality of being frugal or prudent.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, words rooted in Latin vidēre, meaning “to see,” began to emerge in English […]

There follow examples like provision, purvey, and provide. This is all well and good, but then we get:

The nouns province and providence are from Latin provincia and providentia, respectively, and they enter Middle English in the 14th century. Their base root (like provision, purvey, and provide) is providēre—a combination of the prefix pro-, meaning “before,” “prior to,” or “earlier than,” and vidēre.

Unless they know something nobody else does, including the OED, AHD, and their own dictionary (“Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin provincia”), the Latin word provincia cannot be traced back any further; it does not have any relation to vidēre. If that misinformation were purveyed in any random blog, it would irritate me, but to see it in the official Merriam-Webster Unabridged blog, representing the most esteemed name in American lexicography, is infuriating. They should correct it forthwith, and whoever wrote and approved it should feel ashamed. It’s hard enough getting people to distinguish reliable sources of language information from uninformed blather without having lexicographers letting down the side.


  1. Wikt can’t be expected to be consistent between different entries, but <prōvincia points to PIE *per- ‘go through, carry out, fare’, which makes sense if the alternative meaning of prōvincia ‘public duty, public office’ is the older one. Some Gmc descendants < *per- are fahren and ferry.

    Wikt also says that the Proto-Germanic cognate of provincia is *frawjǭ, which has few surviving reflexes: OE had frēa ‘lord, king’ and frēo ‘free; noble’, and German has Fronsocage, hard work’ and Fronleichnam ‘Corpus Christi’.

  2. de Vaan’s Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages links provincia to vincire: “Lat. provinciaseems based on an adj. *pro-wink-io- ‘load, burden, charge’ > task'”, citing a 1997 article by E. Hamp. The link to *frawjo is also found in Georges’ Handwörterbuch (, which was last updated over a century ago (there was a “Neuer Georges” published a few years ago, but that was little more than a reprint in modern type, without any substantial revision).

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    I thought the reflex of per was per: perform, perfect (=per+facere) etc. Or is that another per or a coincidence? If per were the beginning of provincia, what would the rest be?

  4. Wikt divides *per- into four: ‘first, front’; this one; ‘try, dare, risk’; ‘sell’, as in Latin per, portō, perīculum, pars respectively. What connections exist or don’t exist between these, especially the first two, are anyone’s guess.

    Nobody knows where the rest of prōvincia comes from at all.

  5. It’s not from prō+vincere (conquered [territories])?

  6. That’s probably folk etymology.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s easier to imagine the “sphere of responsibility” meaning being broadened to include the physical territories which in fact were a proconsul’s responsibility, than the metaphor of a foreign territory under Roman rule becoming a word for abstract “area of responsibility” in general.

    Latin is much less given to metaphor than English, too, outside actual poetry. (It’s one of the things they warned you about in the far-off days when schoolchildren actually did Latin prose composition.)

  8. Here’s a commentary on CIc. De Orat. about metaphors in Latin and the metaphor metaphor. I didn’t know that the Latin calque was translatio, but it makes perfect sense.

  9. As I wrote here:

    The first thing that made me want to start blogging was a picture on page 117; it’s in black and white in the book, but you can see it in glorious color towards the end of the excerpts page. It shows a Greek moving van blazoned with the word ΜΕΤΑΦΟΡΕΣ [metaforés], which is the normal Greek word for ‘moves, removals’; as Deutscher says, “meta-phora is Greek for ‘carry across’ (meta = ‘across’, phor = ‘carry’). Or to use the Latin equivalent, meta-phor just means trans-fer.” I used to see such signs in Astoria (the heavily Greek part of Queens where I used to live), and I’d point them out to whoever I was walking with and explain that “metaphor” is a basic everyday word in Greek; I’m delighted to be able to send everyone to this picture (and get a nostalgic thrill myself).

  10. I’ve read elsewhere that ‘provenience’ is a word found only in Websters. It’s not a real English word.

    I think the person who wrote that (and it was a long time ago) might have had a bee in their bonnet. ‘Provenance’ and ‘provenience’ appear to be used in totally different areas. See this post:

  11. Looks like I screwed up the link. Translation of De Oratore; the commentary I mentioned above.

  12. Wikt seems to be the only dictionary that distinguishes between them:

    The term provenience in archaeology/archeology has largely replaced provenance in order to distinguish and clarify the issue of “findspot” from “ownership.” Provenience most frequently refers to the in situ location at the time of archaeological discovery (“the provenience of an artifact”), while provenance is customarily used by historians, museums, and commercial entities to refer to chain of custody, ideally from the time of origin to the current location in museums or private collections.

    At any rate, it’s clear that provenance is by far the older term, and provenience a semi-arbitrary alteration of it.

  13. At any rate, it’s clear that provenance is by far the older term, and provenience a semi-arbitrary alteration of it.

    The first clear instance of provenance in this sense is from 1861 (C. W. King Antique Gems 80 “Supposing this statement as to the provenance of the hoard to be essentially true”), that of provenience from 1866 (Trans. Connecticut Acad. Arts & Sci. 261 “A seal, the provenience of which is unknown, dating from the fifth or sixth centuries”). I’m not sure “by far the older” really describes the situation.

  14. The quoted passage from Wikt displays uncertainty, or perhaps ignorance, as to the meaning of “ownership”, which later is called “custody”. The proper term is “possession” if you’re going to dabble in legal terminology.

    “Provenience”, nowadays at any rate, recommends itself as a mishearing, and then ignorant conflation of “provenance” with “convenience”. Even “findspot” is better than that.

    “In situ location” is mere copyeditor bait. Ahoy polloy !

  15. Wikt also says that the Proto-Germanic cognate of provincia is *frawjǭ, which has few surviving reflexes: OE had frēa ‘lord, king’ and frēo ‘free; noble’, and German has Fron ‘socage, hard work’ and Fronleichnam ‘Corpus Christi’.
    The female equivalent has survived better; it’s German Frau, Dutch vrouwe “woman, wife”, originally “lady”. The old sense is still visible in church names like Frauenkirche, Unserer Lieben Frau , which are dedicated to the mother of god, but most speakers aren’t aware of that. “Fron / Fronarbeit” is a literary word, and most people don’t understand the meaning of “Fron-” in “Fronleichnam” either, linking it to froh “happy” instead, leading to a jocular translations into English as “happy cadavre day”.

  16. All it means is “body of the Lord”, thus corpus Christi as you say.

    Fronleiche might be mistaken for Frauenleiche by the less rootsavvy.

  17. Or for Mariacronleiche.

  18. With *wink going all the way back to PIE, and present and commonplace in Latin, it may be folk etymology, but surely the folk were already explaining it that way when the Romans founded Narbo, with any other etymology already so ancient that noone was aware of it.

  19. the Latin word provincia cannot be traced back any further

    Per a fake etymology I penned sometime ago, it’s clearly cognate with Indic pradesh, from a PIE form roughly reconstructible as *prodʰeyḱh₂- ~ *prōdʰiḱh₂- (with a nasal infix added in Latin and Grassmann’s Law of *dʰ…ćʰ in Indic); -v- for expected *-b- is probably a Vulgarism.


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