Somewhere online today, I saw an ad or article about Hello Kitty Converse shoes. It probably wasn’t a targetted ad, or else whatever cookies are tracking me don’t know me at all. Curiously, for some reason, when I saw the word Converse, I pronounced it with an emphasis on the second syllable, like it was the verb to converse. Seeing the full title and accompanying picture of course made me realise that the word was Converse, the proper noun referring to the brand name, and not the verb. This was another interesting example of the difference in word stress between nouns and verbs. And of course at this stage, I’d got to thinking: why is the shoemaker named Converse, and how is that related to the verb to converse?

The answer to the first question is pretty mundane. The company was founded by a man called Marquis Mills Converse. OK then, but why is his surname Converse? It’s not a common surname, so where does it come from? That’s actually an interesting one. It seems to have largely come about as a surname to refer to people who converted to Christianity, often from Judaism (and hey – convert = noun, convert = verb too).

OK, that’s good to know, but how do the words convert/conversion etc. relate to converse and conversation?

That’s a little less clear, but they certainly share the same etymology, derived from the Latin prefix con (together) and the verb vertere (to turn). We can see pretty clearly here how this relates to the concept of conversion, but what about conversation? The word didn’t enter the English language until the late 16th century, so by then its meaning had drifted away somewhat from its Latin origins. It can be traced back to the Latin conversari (to live with, keep company with), which probably developed from the concept of turning together, to the more general sense of acting together, and from there to living together. It wasn’t much of a step to go from that to speaking together, as if you live with someone, you’re probably going to speak them, at least a little bit.

Of course as you’ve been reading this you’ve undoubtedly been thinking, Yes, yes, but what’s the etymology of Hello Kitty!? Well that’s obviously a complicated question, so I’ll have to leave that for a separate post!

4 thoughts on “Converse

  1. Con-vertere: Turn taking together! Those clever 16th-century linguists.

    Is there another Latin-derived word where people talk over one another?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Supervert could work, if it weren’t for the confusion of it seeming like the opposite of subvert. Otherwise I think interrupt is close enough that a specific word for that has never taken off.


  2. For one my masters subjects I wrote an essay about the group, personal and linguistic interactions between the British settlers/colonists/invaders at Botany Bay in the first week of the settlement/colonisation/invasion. I noted:

    “Several of the writers use words such as ‘interview’, ‘conversation’ and ‘conference’ without specifying the medium; probably non-verbally, as [Marine Lieutenant Watkin] Tench specifies ‘nearly an hour’s conversation by signs and gestures’. (The original meanings of ‘interview’ (to see each other), ‘converse’ (keep company with to) and ‘conference’ (to bring together) all didn’t necessarily involve speaking.)”

    Several writers also used ‘intercourse’, which I’m surprised I didn’t add.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s