Revolting / Revolve

Turn, turn, turn.

Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the word “revolting.” It means “disgusting,” right? But it seems to have similar roots to “revolution” and “revolve.” Could you tell us how those words relate? — Emily Colby.

Good question, and you’re correct in your suspicion that “revolting” is closely connected to “revolution” and “revolve.” Incidentally, I went wandering over to Wikipedia just now and learned (supposedly — one never knows) something. The classic catchphrase “What a revoltin’ development this is!” was popularized by the seminal 1950s US TV show “The Life of Riley,” starring the awesome William Bendix. However, although Bendix had starred in the long-running 1940s “Life of Riley” radio show (as well as a spin-off movie), the role of Riley in the first season on TV was played by Jackie Gleason. Weird. Gleason, of course, went on to play a similar character in The Honeymooners.

Meanwhile, back at your question, the whole story begins with the verb “revolve,” which appeared in English in the 15th century, derived, via French, from the Latin “revolvere” (“re,” back or again, plus “volvere,” to turn). In English, “revolve” has developed dozens of senses based on either a literal or figurative “turning around” or “turning back,” from the earth “revolving” around the Sun to now-rare senses meaning to “turn over,” or deeply consider, something in one’s mind (“Here [Martin] Luther touched upon a question that he had revolved in his mind with earnestness during the preceding months.” 1907).

The past participle form of that Latin “revolvere” was “revoltus,” which English acquired in the 14th century, through Old French, as “revolution.” The initial meaning of “revolution” in English was simply “the act of revolving,” especially in a repetitive fashion, e.g., the revolution of planets, the annual cycle of seasons, etc. More mundane uses, such as the measurement of the speed of an engine, are familiar today in the abbreviation “RPM,” meaning “revolutions per minute.”

But by the early 15th century, “revolution” had developed an additional and very different meaning, based on the use of “revolve” to mean “turn over.” “Revolution” came to mean a complete “overturn” of the established order, whether in science, literature, the economic system or breakfast cereals (“Numbers of young men … studied Karl Marx; and were so convinced … that the Revolution was fixed for 1889.” G.B. Shaw, 1889).

“Revolt” came from the same sources as “revolve” and “revolution,” but arrived in English in the mid-16th century by a slightly different route. Originally meaning to abandon a leader orĀ  switch sides in a dispute, “revolt” soon broadened to mean to arise in rebellion, engage in revolution, and overthrow the established order. By the late 17th century, “revolt” had also developed the sense of “to react with repugnance or disgust to something,” often a custom, idea, social convention or injustice (“The heart instinctively revolts against the unnatural privations which are imposed upon it.” 1829). In the early 18th century, a transitive form appeared, and people spoke of being revolted by things they found disgusting or repellent (“Strangers were often revolted by his uncouth proportions.” 1935). So the things we find “revolting” are those that cause our feelings, morals, tastes, or even gastrointestinal tracts, to rebel, sometimes violently.

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