The dictionary defines soil as the upper layer of earth that can be dug or ploughed and in which plants grow. But for a soldier it is a sacred chalice that they fill with their blood. For toddlers, it is something that settles on their faces as they roll and play in it, magnifying their smile and bringing out their earthen beauty until their mothers drag them back to their homes for a bath for the 5th time that day. Whatever your ideal definition of soil might be, its contribution to our vocabulary is something most of us are ignorant of. So let us try to right this wrong.
The Latin word for soil is humus. It is one of those purely Latin words that can still be found in dictionaries and now refers to the uppermost layer of soil that is made up of decaying and decomposed plant and animal matter. When prefixed with ex- (Latin for ‘out of’) the word exhume is formed which means to remove from the soil or take out something buried beneath it. It can also be used figuratively to mean the removal of something from a collection as in ‘He has been trying to exhume some old records from the archive.”.
Humus’ cousin, the Latin word humilis, meant lowly (literal meaning of it being ‘on the ground’). Thus, its derivative, humiliate, originally meant to lower someone’s position. In the present time, however, to humiliate someone means to make them feel ashamed or hurt their dignity.
A word with similar roots but vastly different in meaning is humility which means the modesty or the lack of pride. It is quite nicely summed up in the words of the author C.S. Lewis:
Humilis also inspired the term humble (not arrogant or assertive). Earlier, the word used to carry the sense of being of a low birth or status. This sense can still be felt at places. For instance, when we say that Dhirubhai Ambani was a man of humble origins who went on to build one of India’s largest industrial empires, it means that he was not born into a wealthy family yet managed to achieve success. While the word now carries a positive connotation, someone too humble is seen as being meek or lacking in self-assertion.
The idiom ‘eat humble pie’ might make you think that it too is a derived in a similar fashion but that is not so. It comes from ‘umble pie’ where umble meant the entrails of animals which was considered an inferior food.
The verb soil, which means to make dirty, was derived from the Old French term soillier which meant to splatter with mud, to foul or make dirty.
The negative connotation associated with ‘soiled’ resulted in the birth of the term sully (defame; damage the purity of something). When someone’s name is sullied, their reputation is tainted or destroyed. When prefixed with un- (not), we get unsullied which refers to something which has not been spoilt or made impure. Thus, an unsullied reputation is one that is clean and untarnished. In a similar vein is the term slur which meant thin or fluid mud but now signifies insulting and derogatory remarks.
Here’s a quick summary of the words mentioned here. Read them and then try the quiz.
|Humus||Top most layer of soil|
|Exhume||To take out something from the soil|
|Humiliate||To make someone feel ashamed or hurt their dignity|
|Humility||Modesty; Lack of pride|
|Soil||(n.) The top layer of the earth’s surface.|
(v.) To make something dirty.
|Sully||To tarnish someone’s reputation.|
|Un-||Sullied||Clear or untarnished.|
|Slur||A disparaging or insulting remark.|
Click on the image below to be redirected to the crossword page:
2. A disparaging comment
5. To destroy one’s reputation
6. Being modest
7. Take out of the ground
1. To shame or hurt their dignity
3. A clean or untarnished reputation
4. Top layer of the soil that contains organic components