Gravity

I was thinking about this word, and the related word grave, this morning. Like contract, it’s a curiously multi-purpose word.

Obviously there’s gravity, the natural force which makes all objects with mass are drawn towards each other.

But of course a situation, or a person, can have gravity too: a seriousness.

Looking back to the origins of this word, it’s easy to see why we use it in these two ways. It’s derived from the Latin word gravis, meaning heavy, ponderous, burdensome, or loaded. And when we’re in a grave, or serious mood, that’s how we feel, isn’t it? We feel slow and heavy, or like we’re carrying a heavy burden.

It also makes sense that we use gravity in the scientific sense. The more mass an object has, the more gravity it has. I should point out by the way, that mass and weight are not the same. Mass is constant, and represents the amount of material contained in a body. Weight refers to the force exerted by gravity on a body, and therefore depends on where you are. You’d weigh less on the moon for example, because there’s less gravity there than here (assuming you’re reading this on Earth), but your mass would still be the same.

Grave is the adjective form of gravity, and of course that word has a much more common, and final, meaning. Is there any link between these two uses of the word grave?

Alas, no. I did try to think what link there could be. Going to your grave is a pretty grave matter. It’s a burden on your loved ones. And when you’re buried you’re drawn into the ground, like an object is by the Earth’s gravity.

But no, the resemblance is entirely coincidental. The noun grave comes from the Old English græf, originally meaning ditch, trench, or cave. Still, even if the two grave‘s aren’t linked, they’re still an interesting example of the differences between words of Latin and Germanic origin.

Grave, of Germanic origin, referred to very mundane things like ditches and caves. Even though it came to refer to a person’s final resting place, hundreds of years ago death was a more everyday event that happened earlier and more frequently than now (for some of us who are fortunate enough for that to be the case).

Grave the adjective, and gravity, refer to serious and scientific matters, and because of the… gravity of such matters, we use Latin-based terms.

And that’s the great thing about English: the flexibility to use words with different tones for specific contexts. Which is why I think any attempts to deliberately limit English are pretty misguided.

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