Dog wearing comedy glasses

Words which sound similar but have very different histories: Cervix, Service, Surface and Survey

There’s small chance of anyone getting cervix and survey mixed up – though Lord, what comedy grammar that would be. Strangely, while the front end of these words sound almost indistinguishable, it’s not because they’re related.

1. Survey

Survey came to English via the Anglo-Norman surveier, from the Latin super + videre.

The videre part comes via the Proto-Indo-European root word *weid- meaning, ‘to see’ (Proto-Indo-European, or PIE, is the hypothetical ancestor to all Indo-European languages).

Other words that share this root include interview, review, deja vu, clairvoyant, voyeur and the utterly unexpected penguin.

Anyhoo, in English, Survey initially (in the 15th century) had the sense of ‘consider or contemplate’. The sense of a ‘collection of data or opinions’ is much more recent (from 1927). I doubt the internet would be the same kind of place without quite so many surveys – I say this unironically as one who’s worked on many surveys. Mmm. Data.

2. Service

Survey and Service sound like they could both have been birthed from the same word. But they weren’t.

Service comes from the Old French servise (‘homage, Mass, church ceremony’), via the Latin servitium, from servus, meaning ‘slave’.

In English we’ve used this in relation to ‘church service’ since the 12th century – and, if you’re interested, of ‘sexual intercourse’ since the mid-15th century.

Now it also crops up in things like service entrance and Internet Service Provider (ISP). Sadly, eye-service – a service done only for show – is now more commonly lip-service (something we only say we’re going to do).

3. Surface

English adopted (stole? paid homage to?) Surface from the Old French, er, surface ( ‘outside part of a body’). This sur + construction comes via the Latin ‘super’, a prefix meaning ‘above or over’, and is what Surface shares with Survey.

Even more delightfully, ‘super’ comes via the Proto-Indo-European root word *uper. Words that share this root include over, summit, and even hyper-. It’s also there in sovereign … and long may it reign over us. Heh.

*uper, by the way, sounds like some of the words it morphed into, including upper and even uber – which also means ‘upper’, ‘supreme’ and ‘taxi’. OK, maybe not taxi …

4. Cervix

Cervix is a Latin word, meaning Cervix. Jokes. No, it means neck-like, or neck-shaped. Cervix Uteri is therefore ‘the neck of the womb’, and that’s what we’re usually talking about when we talk about Cervix.

Etymonline again throws up some juicy PIE crumbs here: Cervix comes via the Proto-Indo-European root word *ker-, meaning ‘horn or head’. That root word also gives us: cerebral, cornea, rhinoceros, Capricorn and good old carrots.

Today’s show was brought to you by the words Cervix, Service, Surface and Survey, and the number 4.


Words: my own except where quoted.
Photo by Andrés Gerlotti via Unsplash.