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Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Sanitizer and sanity


We are all adjured to use sanitizer at every opportunity. 

But, if "sane" means "of sound mind", why does its derivative "sanitize" not mean "make someone sane"? After all, they are derived from the same Latin root, sānus (healthy). How convenient would that be, to have some kind of "sanitizing" shampoo which eliminated all kinds of craziness!

But there has been a semantic divergence: "sanitize" and its related word "sanitary"  are for physical health, whereas the root word "sane" and its derivative "sanity" are only for mental health.

 "Sane", like so many Latin words, was borrowed into English in the 16th century, a little later than "sanity", at which time both words did refer to physical health (as, of course, sain does in French).  This meaning, however, was subsequently overtaken by the "mental health" sense so that by the 19th century the "physical health" sense was lost. This was probably due to the fact that its opposite, "insane", has only ever meant "of unsound mind", dating from when it too was borrowed in the 16th century. This was true also of its Latin source insānus.

"Sanitize" dates from 1836 and "sanitizer" from the mid 20th century, so they were not in fact derived from what "sane" meant in English at the time but from the original Latin meaning.

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.