TNQDE: To Found and To Hide

So today’s word doesn’t have the most interesting etymology, but saying it makes me feel piratical. Therefore:


This is one of those words that most people who have survived a semester of Latin class could chop up in no time at all. It came to us directly from Latin (give or take some minor morphology changes), where it was formed through the combination of two word parts that many of you could probably guess: abs- and condere. Abs- is a good prefix to know. It shows up often in the form ab- too and means “away.” Condere is a fairly useful verb which means, to simplify, “to put.” Abscondere, then, means “to put away.”

No, wait. Let’s not simplify. Condere is a fun verb. You learn it in beginner’s Latin not as “to put,” but as “to put together,” or “to build” or “to found,” as in “Remus and Romulus founded Rome.” “To put” is a secondary sense–it you wanted to convey a sense of simply placing something somewhere, you would probably use ponere. Condere‘s sense of putting is already that of “putting away,” as in “to hide.” This makes for a fun punning opportunity in translation: Did you found the city? No, I hid it.

In Latin, attaching a prefix to a verb is often simply a way of emphasizing a particular meaning. To abscond is to hide away, only more so. By the time the word reached English, however, it had picked up a second feature which distinguishes it from the verb of simple hiding. You can hide not only yourself, but also other people and things, like buried treasure and outlaws with a price on their head. If you abscond, however, you can only hide yourself away, although you can abscond with people and things, implying that they are absconding in parallel with you. This has amusing implications if you think about it too hard. You can abscond with a toaster, and who’s to say from that sentence that the toaster isn’t absconding of its own free will?

And no, you can’t use common sense in my word games. That’s just playing dirty.

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