Issue 123, page 1

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flow and fly

Back in the 1970s there was a cover version of Sam Cooke's classic song "Cupid".  It wasn't a great version and the singer even got the words wrong.  The first verse begins

Cupid, draw back your bow
And let your arrow go...

but this singer confused the second line with the second line of verse two ("And let your arrow fly...").  Time flows in strange directions for S. DaliAs a result the line came out "And let your arrow flow...".  The surreal nature of this image somehow seems to have eluded the record producer.

Part of the problem might be that flow and fly are essentially the same word, both  having their origin in the ancient Indo-European root *pleu-.  The descendants of this word fall into two main camps: the "fly" *pleu- words and the "flow" *pleu- words. 

An example of a "flow" *pleu- word is the Latin verb pluere "to rain".  This gave French pluerer "to rain" and  gave English the (admittedly obscure) pluvial "rainy", "of rain".  Pluvial is also Spanish for "plover".  In several languages the name of this bird is related to rain (in parts of England it is even known as the "rain bird") though no one really knows why.

A fleet of ships float together.  In fact, the adjective fleet meaning "swift", the noun fleet meaning "a group of ships" and the verb "to float" all come from Old English verb fleotan, "to float".  In Spanish, "fleet" is flota,  the diminutive of this is flotilla, literally a "little fleet".  The French flotison "that which isPlover - rhymes with "cover", not "Dover" floating" (from Old French floter "to float") became flotsam in English, a word that is rarely heard unless coupled with jetsam.  For the land-lubbers among us, flotsam is the wreckage of a ship which is picked up from the surface of the sea, while jetsam (from the verb to jettison) means cargo which is thrown overboard (to lighten the load) when a ship is in distress and which later washes ashore.

The Indo-Europeans formed another word from*pleu- and that was *pleumon-, "floater".  The ancients must have thought lungs were somehow "floaty" as *pleumon- gave rise to pneuma "breath" in Greek and pulmo "lung" in Latin.  These are, of course, the source of our English words pneumatic, pneumonia and pulmonary.  Another "flowing" pleu- word was the Greek ploutos, "riches".  It implied over-flowing abundance and the Greek god of wealth was, naturally, Pluto.  Flow itself comes from pleu- (via Old English flowan) and so does flood (this time from Old English flod).

Flight, both in the sense of "fleeing" and "flapping wings", is a "flying"*pleu- word.  Come to think of it, so are flee (from Old English fleon), flit and fly (the verb and the insect).  Note that, where the original Indo-European root began with a p, all its Germanic descendants begin with an f.  This is generally the case in Germanic words.  For example, Old English fisc "fish" may be compared to Latin piscis "fish".  (See the table of Indo-European consonants on our Theory page for details).

Surprisingly, fletcher ("one who makes arrows", from Old French flèche, "arrow") is another*pleu- words.  So maybe Cupid's arrows did flow after all.

How do we know all this stuff?  Why not visit our bookstore and find out?


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2001 TIERE
Last Updated 05/28/01 09:42 PM