10 Words Derived from “Scribe”

By Mark Nichol

Scribe, from the Latin term scribere, meaning “to write,” referred to a person who performed the responsibilities of an accountant, a secretary, or both but later denoted any writer. (Scrivener is a synonym from medieval Anglo-French.) The term is rarely used outside of historical contexts but occasionally appears as affected slang to refer to a professional author or writer; the same is true of its use as a verb to refer to the action of writing.

Scribe is the basis of a select group of other words; here are ten such terms and their meanings, along with examples of their use in a sentence. (Note that each verb listed here can be converted to a noun by changing -scribe to -scription, as in prescribe/prescription.)

1. ascribe: attribute (literally, “write to”: “It is largely to this that we must ascribe the national conservatism and contempt for foreigners”)

2. circumscribe: constrict or surround, or define (literally, “draw around”: “To circumscribe the influence of the ruling favorites, he next suggested the formation of a cabinet council of six or eight ministers”)

3. conscribe: synonym for circumscribe or variant of conscript

4. describe: represent by drawing something or talking about it, or trace the outline of something (literally, “draw from”: “I can’t describe how helpless I felt”)

5. inscribe: write on something (literally, “write in”: “They would then inscribe a verse over the door of the house for protection”)

6. prescribe: make a rule, or tell someone to use a remedy or treatment (literally, “write before”: “The numerous fasts of the national church prescribe a fish diet”)

7. proscribe: prohibit (literally, “write for”: “When a legislature undertakes to proscribe the exercise of a citizen’s constitutional right to free speech, it acts lawlessly”)

8. subscribe: sign or support, or pay regularly for a publication or service (literally, “write beneath”: “Long ago, she had learned that many people didn’t subscribe to her morals”)

9. superscribe: write outside or on top of or over (literally, “write over”: “Kindly superscribe renewal on the envelope if you are sending it by post”)

10. transcribe: copy something written or write something spoken, or rewrite music for a different instrument or voice or in a different key (literally, “write across”: “She will transcribe the speech and send you a copy tomorrow”)

Unsubscribe was a rarely used antonym for subscribe until after the advent of email; now, many companies and organizations have an unsubscribe option that enables the receiver to automatically halt the transmission of subsequent messages. The terms superscript and subscript, meanwhile, refer to small numbers, letters, or other characters (such as asterisks) set above or below the baseline of type as indicators of footnotes or in mathematical and scientific usage.

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