Impertinent Lieutenant Plays Tennis with Tenacity

Hold on! I have an exceptional root to share with you. It shows up in various spellings like tain, ten, tent, and tin, and means “hold, reach, occupy, persist, remain, retain, grasp.” In one form or another, it’s all about holding.

Let’s look at impertinent. What’s the logic of this word? For starters, it maps back to pertain, “be appropriate, related, or applicable”. The prefix per “through” modifies the base root tain to create the sense “to hold through”. The adjective pertinent, “relevant or applicable to a particular matter”, is closely related. When it picks up the extra prefix im “not” to form impertinent, we get the sense of an idea “not holding through”, or “not relevant or applicable”. Over time this meaning also picked up a sense of deliberateness. Now it’s not just that an idea or comment is not applicable, it’s that the speaker meant it that way. Impertinent moves the focus from the message to the messenger, from not relevant to rude and disrespectful.

“Who are you talking to?” said the King, coming up to Alice, and looking at the Cat’s head with great curiosity.
“It’s a friend of mine—a Cheshire-Cat,” said Alice: “allow me to introduce it.”
“I don’t like the look of it at all,” said the King: “however, it may kiss my hand, if it likes.”
“I’d rather not,” the Cat remarked.
“Don’t be impertinent,” said the King, “and don’t look at me like that!”
From: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carrol

But if you will listen to his letter, you may perhaps be a little softened by his manner of expressing himself.”
“No, that I am sure I shall not; and I think it was very impertinent of him to write to you at all, and very hypocritical. I hate such false friends.
From: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Next, let’s look at lieutenant. What does this word have to do with holding? The lieu, loc root means “place”, and the family includes words like milieu, locale, dislocate, and locomotive (“that which moves from place to place”). So a lieutenant is “one who holds the place of another”, a substitute or deputy. For example, an army lieutenant is put in command when the captain is absent.

Tennis players must hold a racquet, but is the sport named for this? No, the most common story describes the server hollering “tenez!”, meaning “hold, receive, take”, prior to delivering the ball. Also, the sport was originally just played with the hands and called jeu de paume, “game of the palm”. This certainly required some holding and reaching. But overall there is no consensus on the etymology of tennis. Somehow the French came up with the name and we’ve been holding onto it ever since.

Which brings us to tenacity. This is a great example of a word that really comes to light if we focus on the root. To have tenacity is “to hold fast, to persist”. And there are many others like this. Our countenance is our composure: “that which holds us together.” An untenable argument does not hold up to scrutiny. That which is sustainable is well supported: “held up from below.” Similarly, sustenance holds us up and helps us “remain, persist.” A tenet is a belief that is held as true.

Let’s help our students become tenacious root detectives and to take hold of the logic of words!

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