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shameless pleading


In a rut.

Dear Word Detective: I would love to know where the word “inveterate” comes from. — Preston.

OK. That’s it? You get two more wishes, you know. Sure you don’t want to meet Nessie or go on a date with Princess Leia, both popular choices with my readers? I should warn you that x-ray vision is greatly overrated, creates legal liability headaches, and quickly becomes boring. Time travel to the past used to be fun, but now everybody ends up standing in a very long line to either buy Google stock or kill Hitler. And, as Yogi Berra supposedly said, the future ain’t what it used to be. All they do there is play with their telephones, and if you wanna breathe, it’s gonna cost you big time. Flying cars, incidentally, turn out to be a really bad idea. Duh.

While you ponder the possibilities, I’ll get started on your question. “Inveterate” is a dandy word, phonetically ideal for expressing forceful contempt (“Watson, try as you might, you remain an inveterate idiot.”). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the primary sense of “inveterate” as an adjective as “Firmly established by long continuance; long-established; deep-rooted; obstinate.” You might be saying to yourself, “Well, a little obstinacy isn’t bad now and then, and maybe ‘inveterate’ really just means ‘consistent and reliable’.” Unfortunately you’d be wrong, because the secondary meaning of “inveterate” as of the 19th century was “Full of obstinate prejudice or hatred; embittered, malignant; virulent” (OED), and the noun “inveterate” meant “an incorrigibly evil person.” The word was occasionally used between the 16th and 19th centuries to mean simply “lasting,” but “inveterate” today is a throughly negative word.

“Inveterate” first appeared in print in the 16th century with that non-pejorative sense of “aged” or “long-standing,” but within a century had begun to take on negative connotations. Unlike many cases when the prefix “in” connotes negation (e.g., “invalid,” not valid), the “in” in “inveterate” means literally “in” or “into” with the sense of intensification. The “veterate” comes from the Latin verb “veterare,” to make old. The Latin word “inveteratus,” the root of our “inveterate,” thus carried the sense of “long standing” or, of a person, “having grown old in” some habit or attitude.

By the way, the root of that Latin “inveteratus” was the adjective “vetus,” which meant simply “old.” This “vetus” also gave us the word “veteran,” which originally meant “an old soldier, one who has had long experience in military service.” Today, of course, we use “veteran” to mean anyone who has held a position or performed an activity long enough to be considered experienced (“Miss Fanny ?. said the usual nothings with the skill of a veteran,” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, 1856).

Lastly, and I mention this mostly because I wondered about it myself as a child, there is no direct connection between “veteran” and “veterinarian.” Your dog’s doctor’s profession took its name from the Latin “veterinum,” meaning “cow” or, more broadly, “beast of burden,” still a vet’s primary patients in rural areas. There is, however, a possibility that “veterinarian” ultimately goes back to that Latin “vetus” (old), perhaps with the sense of the animal being old enough to perform work (and thus worth the cost of medical care).

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