Vocab Lab: Word Cousins – "Prehend"

Etymology – the roots (or, etymologically speaking, seeds) of words – can sound like a pretty dry pursuit if you aren't a word farmer by trade. But knowing a word's derivation has all kinds of benefits. It can make you a better, more nuanced communicator, of course, and if you happen to find words fascinating and beautiful, it can heighten your, ahem, textual pleasure.

I've always loved exploring how words are related, especially if they contain seemingly contradictory meanings. A famous example is the kinship of "treason" and "tradition" – two words that would seem utterly at odds, more like the Montagues and the Capulets than members of a single clan. But both derive from a sense of "handing over." Once this scandalous similitude is known, it's impossible to think of either word quite the same way again.

Lately I've seized on words with variations of "prehend" as prefix or suffix, a particularly rewarding subject for inquiry as they're all about "grasping."

Take "apprehend," which has two equally potent senses: We speak of the cop's desire to apprehend a fugitive and of the scholar's similarly fervent wish to apprehend an idea. Though the two scenarios are dramatically different, each one is about catching, seizing, grabbing.

The adjectival form of "apprehend" is "apprehensive." How can it be that "having the ability to understand" and "feeling a sense of wary unease" come from the same source? Indeed, we speak of "a vague apprehension" in instinctual, metaphysical terms that conjure the very opposite of "understanding." Yet that anxiety is itself an understanding, a perception of danger on the horizon.

Now take "comprehend," usually considered a synonym of "apprehend." The words are used to capture different facets of understanding (though, to be fair, the former is far more common in this sense than the latter.) I like to think the "com" prefix suggests a greater grasping, an encircling (think of another "com" word: compass). In other words, to comprehend is to get your head around something.

Then there's hissable relation "reprehensible" (and less frequently deployed verb and noun forms "reprehend" and "reprehension"), a word applied to the guilty, the tyrannical, those worthy of censure and opprobrium. We might seize such a person for the purposes of trial (or worse). The etymology of "reprehend" points to the idea of restraining someone or something; per Etymonline, "from Latin reprehendere, 'seize, restrain,' literally 'pull back,' from re- 'back' + prehendere, 'to grasp, seize.'"

True linguists may find my rash roundup of these word cousins reprehensible. And I admit to monkeying around with language. One simian that springs to mind in this context is the spider monkey, which has a prehensile tail – ideally suited to, you guessed it, grasping.

Sure, it's a lot to get your head around. But don't be apprehensive – these word-family reunions always yield interesting memories. At the very least, I hope you'll never encounter one of these "prehend" words without thinking of its kin. Including those of the primate persuasion.