Looking up something else, I happened to notice that English has two words lemma: lemma ‘auxiliary proposition; glossed word or phrase’ and lemma ‘the lower of the two bracts enclosing the flower in the spikelet of grasses.’ Not particularly noteworthy in itself; what struck me was the etymologies: the former is from Greek lēmma (with long e) ‘thing taken, assumption,’ from lambanein ‘to take’ (compare the perfect passive eilēmmai), the latter from Greek lemma ‘husk,’ from lepein ‘to peel.’ Etymologically, they’re completely unrelated. Kind of neat.


  1. that is very cool. The first lemma has plural lemmata – what’s the plural of the second lemma? (Can’t look it up, I’m dictionariless here.)

  2. More fun with homographs… Here are three examples of 10 letters each:

    (1) Deadly, destructive.
    Middle English, from Old French pernicios, from Latin pernicisus, from pernicis ‘destruction’
    (2) Rapid, swift.
    From Latin pernici-, pernix ‘nimble, quick’ + -ous

    (1) neglect or wrong performance of official duty
    Middle English, from Middle French mesprison ‘error, wrongdoing’, from Old French, from mesprendre ‘to make a mistake’, from mes- ‘mis-‘ + prendre ‘to take’, from Latin ‘to seize’
    (2) contempt, scorn
    From misprize, from Middle French mesprisier, from mes- ‘mis-‘ + prisier ‘to appraise’

    (1) any of several trailing or woody evergreen herbs of the dogbane family
    Middle English perwinke, from Old English perwince, from (assumed) Vulgar Latin pervinca, short for Latin vincapervinca
    (2) any of various gastropod mollusks
    (Assumed) Middle English, alteration of Old English pinewincle, from Latin pina ‘a kind of mussel’ (from Greek) + Old English -wincle (akin to Danish vincle ‘snail shell’)

  3. This reminds me of one of my favourite pieces of lexical fastidiousness, when people say they have a “dilemma” but there are not two options involved; it’s simply a difficult situation. They should say “monolemma”, right?
    Presumably if there are more than two lemmata involved, one would be in a polylemma…

  4. Claire: For each of the two definitions, the OED has quotes using each form. (Incidentally, the OED – etymologically-oriented dictionary that it is – gives the two definitions completely separate entries.)
    Hat/Steve: Of converse interest (to me, anyway) are “metal” and “mettle”; there was one word, albeit with two interchangeable spellings, until the early 1700s, and by the mid-1700s, the distinction we have today (mettle being figurative metal) was almost complete. (See the OED’s etymology for “mettle.”) It just amazes me how short a time it took for one word to split into two like that, especially since the two were always homophones.

  5. Nomis, shouldn’t “monolemma” simply be “lemma?”

  6. Are they so unrelated? Lambanein and lepein look like they belong to a word family. “Take” and “peel[off]” are not so far apart semantically.

  7. Andrew Dunbar says

    OED online gives “lemmas, lemmata” for the maths sense, and just “lemmata” for the biology sense. As Ran says, citations are given for both plurals for both words. Is this the OED being prescriptivist again?

  8. I was actually wondering about the plurals in Greek, not the English words. To answer my own question, they are both neuter with plurals in -ata. And there’s also leimma, (neut) ‘a person’s remains’.

  9. Was looking at the etymology of analēmma, and was confused as to why dilemma wasn’t related.
    That quandary led me to this quagmire.

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