Monday, January 1, 2018

Verbs of Sitting, Part 4: Lat. possĭdēre (and possīdĕre)

[This entry is an excerpt from, "Verbs of Sitting and Related Words," a chapter in Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

This is Part 4. Go to Part 1

Sp. poseer ~ Eng. possess

The Latin verb possĭdēre meant primarily ‘to have and hold, to be master of, to own, possess’ and was thus a synonym of tĕnēre ‘to hold, keep, have in the hand, etc.’ (tĕnĕo, tĕnēre, tĕnŭi, tentum) and hăbēre (hăbĕo, hăbēre, hăbŭi, hăbĭtum), sources of Sp. tener and haber, respectively. The verb possĭdēre could also mean ‘to have possessions, to possess lands, be settled’ and this notion of possessing land and settling down may well be connected to the original meaning of this verb. The verb acquired a number of additional uses over time, such as ‘to dominate, to take control of, to seize, to exercise power over, to gain sexual possession of (a woman)’ (OED).

The second conjugation verb possĭdēre is obviously derived from sĕdēre and there was an analogous verb derived from sīdĕre, as we saw above, namely the third conjugation possīdĕre, whose main meaning was presumably ‘to take possession’, as opposed to ‘to be in possession’ (possīdo, possīdĕre, possēdi, possessum). The truth is that it is not obvious that these two verbs were clearly differentiated in Latin. Note that the passive participle of both verbs is the same, namely possessus. There is no doubt that these two verbs were often confused, especially in later Roman times and, especially, as the third conjugation began to coalesce with the second one in Vulgar Latin and the short and long vowels began to coalesce as well.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this verb is its morphemic composition or, in other words, what was the morpheme that preceded the verb. It has been argued that this pos‑ was perhaps a much changed allomorph of the preposition and prefix pro, but most experts now think that it is related to the verb posse ‘to be able to’, the ancestor of Sp. poder (possum, posse, potuī), or else the adjective pŏtis ‘able, capable’ (root pŏt‑) that this verb was derived from, for the verb posse was derived from the phrase potis ‘able’ + esse ‘to be’ or, altogether ‘to be able’.[1]

The English verb possess [pə.ˈzɛs] came into the language in the late 14th century. It is either a back formation of the noun possession ‘act or fact of occupying’, which entered English in the mid-14th century or a loan from Old French possesser, created in the mid-13th century from the passive participle stem possess‑ of the Latin verb possĭdēre. At first, the meaning of Middle English possess was ‘to hold, occupy, reside in’, but the ‘hold as property’ sense is found already by the early 16th century. Note that in Modern French, possesser has been preplaced by semi-learned posséder.

Sp. poseer is first attested in the late 13th century and then again in the following centuries, with different spellings at around the same time that the noun posesión is attested. Everything in the form of these words, however, suggest that they are patrimonial words, though they were obviously not very common or everyday words. The two sound changes we find in poseer are the expected ones in a Spanish patrimonial verb derived from Lat. possĭdēre, namely (1) the reduction of ‑ss‑ to ‑s‑; (2) the change of short ĭ to e, (3) the loss of intervocalic ‑d‑, and (4) the loss of the final e.



Eng. possess and Sp. poseer are cognates, though their forms (spelling) differ because the former is derived from the passive participle wordform, Lat. possessus, of Lat. possĭdēre, with the loss of the ‑us inflection, and the latter is derived from the same verb’s present infinitive wordform. Their meanings are pretty close, no doubt due to having converged over the centuries along with those of their cognates in other European languages, such as French posséder and Italian possedere. They both can be used to refer to having a property, a quality, or a faculty. However, as is typically the case with such friendly cognates, they are not always interchangeable. For example, Eng. possess can have a ‘dominate, overcome, take over’ sense that Sp. poseer cannot have, as in the question What possessed you to do that? ‘¿Qué te impulsó a hacer eso?’ (Harraps). This sense is typically found in questions such as this one, as well as in passive sentences, such as She was possessed by the idea of visiting Japan ‘Estaba obsesionada por visitar Japón’. If the subject is an emotion, however, Spanish may use poseer for the ‘overcome’ sense, though not in the passive, as in the sentence Lo poseían los celos ‘He was possessed/consumed by jealousy’, which is rather literary language. Likewise, Sp. poseer is used in contexts in which English is more likely to use the verbs to own or to hold, as in the sentence, as in poseer un negocio ‘to own a business’, poseer pruebas ‘to have evidence’, poseer un título ‘to hold a title’, or poseer conocimientos ‘to have knowledge’.

Words derived from Lat. possĭdēre

There are a number of words derived from these verbs in English and Spanish, some of which are Latin loanwords, but some others are derived in the modern languages themselves. The following are the main ones:


‘a seizing, occupying, taking’
‘a possessor, owner’
‘of or relating to possession’
‘to take away a possession’


As we saw earlier, the noun possession may have come into English before the verb possess, which may be, at least in part, a back-formation of the noun. It seems to have come into the language both (1) through Latin, where the sourceword possĕssĭo meant ‘enjoyment (of immaterial advantages), occupation, holding, estate, seizure, control’, and (2) through Anglo-Norman and Old French possession, which meant primarily ‘property, use of something without legal ownership’ (OED). Additional senses are attested for this word later on, such as ‘state of being possessed by a demon’ in the 15th century, though in 4th century (post-Classical) Latin this word could also mean ‘domination of a person by a demon or spirit’ (OED).

The cognates Eng. possession ~ Sp. posesión are good friends, since they have identical meanings. They are both learned words borrowed from Lat. possĕssĭo (regular stem: possĕssĭōn‑), formed with the suffix ‑ĭōn‑ attached to the passive participle of the verb and meaning ‘an act of taking possession, seizing, occupying, taking’. English borrowed this word in the mid-14th century either from Lat. possĕssĭōnem (accusative wordform of possĕssĭo) or from the learned French possession. Sp. posesión has the same source and it is first attested in the 13th century. French possession is already attested in the late 12th century, which may mean that it was the original borrower from which English and Spanish copied their versions (cognates) of this word.

The fact that these cognates are good friends does not mean, however, that each of these two words is always used in the same contexts as the other, since synonyms of these words may be more likely in certain contexts. According to the COED, Eng. possession has three main meanings:

1. the state of possessing something. 
    ↘Law visible power or control, as distinct from lawful ownership. 
    ↘(in soccer, rugby, etc.) temporary control of the ball by a player or team. 
2. a thing owned or possessed. 
    ↘a territory or country controlled or governed by another. 
3. the state of being possessed by a demon, emotion, etc. 

All three of these senses are shared by Sp. posesión. However, in Spanish, the noun bien (pl. bienes) may be preferred when referring to a thing being possessed, and poder or tenencia may be preferred when referring to the state of possessing something. The difference in use is particularly obvious in idioms and collocations which may not translate into the other language with the cognate word (for collocations and idioms, see Part I, Chapter 4, §4.12).

Thus, we find, for instance, that Eng. personal possessions translates best as pertenencias (not as ?posesiones personales). The expression to have something in one’s possession translates best as tener algo en su poder and to come into one’s possession as hacerse uno con algo or llegar algo a uno. The expression to acquire possession would probably best be rendered as adquirir (never *adquirir posesión de) or with tomar posesión, the one expression that has an English equivalent, namely to take possession. However, even these two expressions are not fully equivalent for in Spanish, for tomar posesión can be used to refer to coming to an official position whereas take possession cannot, as in tomar posesión de un cargo ‘to be sworn in, to take office’.

In Latin, the agent noun derived from the verb possĭdēre was possessor (regular stem: possessōr‑), derived from the passive participle stem possess‑ of the verb and the agent suffix ‑ōr‑. This noun has been borrowed into English and Spanish as possessor and posesor, respectively. Sp. posesor is quite rare today however and the agent noun connected to the verb poseer is primarily poseedor, a noun derived, in Spanish, from the verb and the agentive noun/adjective suffix ‑dor.[2]

Also from the passive participle stem possess‑, Latin derived the adjective possĕssīvus by means of the first-second conjugation adjectival suffix ‑īv‑ that could be added to such participles (nominative masc. ‑īvus, fem. ‑īva, neut. ‑īvum). (Sometimes ‑īv‑ attached itself to nouns, as in festivus, source of Eng. festive ~ Sp. festivo.) The cognates Eng. possessive ~ Sp. posesivo/a are learned loanwords that first appeared in writing in the 15th century. They were probably borrowed through learned French possessif (fem. possessive), which is first attested in the late 14th century. The meaning of these words is no longer ‘related to ownership or possession’ (as the AHD claims is possessive’s primary sense) but, rather, ‘demanding someone's total attention and love’ or ‘showing an unwillingness to share one's possessions’ (COED). In grammar, it means ‘relating to or denoting the case of nouns and pronouns expressing possession’ (COED).

From the adjective possessive, English derived the noun possessiveness by the addition of the native (Germanic) suffix ‑ness with the general meaning of ‘the quality of being possessive’ (OED). The noun’s senses can be given as ‘extreme attachment to one’s possessions’ and ‘desire to dominate another emotionally’ (Chambers). Spanish does not have a single word to translate this noun, which can be rendered as actitud posesiva (OSD). Since possessive is an obvious Latinate word, it is perhaps odd that the Latinate suffix ‑ity, which is equivalent to the native Germanic suffix ‑ness, was not chosen to be added to it, giving us possessivity instead of possessiveness. The obvious Spanish equivalent would then have been (non-existent) *posesividad. We must say, however, that the term possessivity is sometimes used in grammar for the quality of being a possessive, though no dictionaries seem to attest this fact.

As we have already seen, Lat. possessus was the passive participle of the verb possĭdēre, as well as that of possīdĕre. This was the masculine nominative wordform, with possessa being the feminine nominative singular form. Thus, its meaning would be ‘possessed’ or ‘seized’, respectively. It would be equivalent to the participles Eng. possessed and Sp. poseído/a. Spanish borrowed Lat possessus/a as an adjective to refer to something that is under the power of a demon or (typically evil) spirit. In this sense, the word is equivalent to poseído/a and the equivalent English word would be possessed. However, Spanish turned the adjective poseso (fem. posesa) into a noun which translates as possessed person, which is the main way the word is used today.

The verb repossess  [ɹi.pǝ.ˈzɛs] does not have a Latin ancestor. It was created in English in the late 15th century out of the verb possess and the prefix re‑ ‘back’ meaning something like ‘to reoccupy’, ‘to occupy back’. That is why this derived word has no Spanish analogue (cognate). The meaning of Eng. repossess today is ‘retake possession of (something) when a buyer defaults on payments’ (COED). This meaning of this word is expressed primarily by the word embargar.[3] Actually, embargar primarily a legal term that means ‘to seize’ (a bank account, for instance) and ‘to impound’ (something like a car). Some dictionaries also give the cognates recuperar and recobrar as possible translations, but that is hardly the case. The OSD does not even give any single-word translation and just describes repossess as ‘recuperar la posesión de (por falta de pago)’. The word repossess is shortened to repo in repo man, an informal (slang) term in North America for ‘a person whose job is repossessing merchandise from buyers who have failed to make payments when due’ (WNWC).

Latin did not have a verb derived from possĭdēre by means of the prefix dĭs‑, that meant ‘apart, away, asunder’ (cf. Eng. distribute), as well as ‘reversal, removal, deprivation’ (cf. Eng. disinfect, disbar), and ‘lacking, absence, negation’ (cf. Eng. disapprove, dishonesty). It seems, however, that such a verb was created in Medieval Latin, resulting in the verb dĭspossĭdēre. Either that or Old French came up with an opposite of the verb possesser (see above) by adding the prefix des‑, which was the patrimonial descendant of Lat. dĭs‑, just like in Spanish, resulting in attested despossesser. The meaning of this verb is to ‘to take something from someone’, i.e. ‘to dispossess’ (cf. Mod.Fr. déposséder, equivalent to exproprier). This verb was borrowed into English in the late 15th century and the prefix’s spelling was changed to dis‑ to make it more like the Latin original prefix. At some point the French verb seems to have been calqued into Spanish as well, resulting in the cognate desposeer, with the same meaning. Interestingly, the past participles of both verbs, namely dispossessed and desposeído/a, can be used as nouns to refer to ‘people who have had property or land taken away’ (DOCE), cf. Eng. the dispossessed ~ Sp. los desposeídos.

A new verb was derived in English from the verb possess that does not have a Latin equivalent. The verb is prepossess, which was created in the early 17th century with the Latinate prefix pre‑ ‘before’ and it originally meant ‘to take or get possession of beforehand, or before another; to have prior possession of’ (OED). This meaning is today obsolete. Its primary meanings today are ‘to possess or dominate mentally beforehand, as a prejudice does’, ‘to prejudice or bias, especially favorably’, and ‘to impress favorably beforehand or at the outset’ (RHWU). The best Spanish translation for this verb is perhaps predisponer, a cognate of Eng. predispose, which is a synonym of prepossess. This verb’s past participle prepossessed is commonly used as an adjective with the meaning ‘biased, prejudiced’. More common perhaps is the use of the verb’s present participle prepossessing as a (rather formal) adjective meaning ‘attractive or appealing in appearance’ (COED), as in a prepossessing smile (Sp. atractivo/a, agradable). Originally prepossessing meant ‘causing prejudice’ (AHD).

Go to Part 5

[1] The verb posse was higly irregular, just like esse was. Additionally, it shows some sound changes at the juncture of the morphemes, such as the loss of the ‑e‑ and ‑t‑ (pot+esse > potsse > posse). These changes must reflect the fact that this word was formed very early on in the history of Latin. Additionally, forms of Lat. posse came from an older *potēre that survived in the related Oscan language, such as the active participle potens and the perfect form pŏtŭī. As we saw above, Lat. esse is the source of Sp. ser after some admixture of this Latin verb with wordforms of the verb sĕdēre. Sp. poder descends from Vulgar Latin *pŏtēre, which substituted Classical Latin pŏsse.

[2] Words with this suffix can be either adjectives or nouns. They add an ‑a in the feminine. With first conjugation verbs, the ending is ‑ador(a), e.g. matadoradj. exhausting, killing; n. bullfighter’. With second conjugation verbs, it is ‑edor(a), e.g. bebedoradj. hard-drinking, n. hard drinker’. Finally, with third conjugation verbs, the ending is ‑idor(a), e.g. vividoradj. pleasure seeking; n. bon viveur, pleasure seeker, person who makes the most of life, etc.’.

[3] Note that there is a second non-legal sense of embargar that is literary and rare, as in the sentence Le embargo la vergüenza ‘He was overwhelmed by shame’. The verb embargar comes from Vulgar Latin *imbarricāre, probably derived from the noun barra ‘bar’. The word is found in the Hispanic Romances plus Occitan. Its original meaning was ‘to hamper, restrict, hinder’. The derived noun embargo is already attested in the 11th century with the meaning ‘worry, care’. This word is very common because it appears in the expression sin embargo ‘however’ (lit. ‘without hindrance’). French and English borrowed the noun embargo from Spanish in the late 16th century, originally with the meaning ‘an official ban, especially on trade or other commercial activity with a particular country’ (COED). Another word derived from barra is Sp. embarazar ~ Eng. embarrass, cf. Part II, Chapter 4. The nouns Sp. barricada ~ Eng. barricade may also be derived from a Vulgar Latin *barricāre in Occitan, which would make sense semantically. However, another theory is that this word was derived from either Fr. barrique or Sp. barrica ‘a cask’ in one of these two languages, for early barricades were made with casks. The source of these words for ‘cask’ is Gascon barrique, which comes from an earlier *barrica, of uncertain origin. From the same source come Sp. barril ~ Eng. barrel, as well as Sp. barriga ‘belly’.

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