Dual vs. Duel

By Mark Nichol

When dual and duel go head to head in a usage fight, the one that wins, as is often the case, depends on the field of battle, otherwise known as the context.

The adjective dual derives from the Latin term dualis, related to duo, the Latin word for two. Duo, of course, was borrowed directly into English and remains a synonym for two. The related term duet, which refers to a performance by a pair of singers or musicians (who may constitute a duo), comes from duetto, an Italian diminutive form of duo.

Oddly, though there are similar words for increasingly larger groups of performers, each of which employs the Latin word for a number from four to eight and the suffix -et — quartet, quintet, sextet, septet, octet — there is no term corresponding to a group of three; for that, the word trio, adopted from French and Italian use and based on the Latin prefix tri-, must suffice. For musical groups of more than eight (and sometimes less), a more general term like band, ensemble, or orchestra is employed.

Terms in which dual is a root include duality and dualism, each of which refers to various schools of thought or principles about human behavior or about phenomenology. The adjective dual-purpose refers to something that has two distinct functions, dual-action is a similar term frequently employed in product names, and the slang term variously spelled dualie, dualy, duallie, or dually (plural: dualies or duallies) identifies a pickup truck equipped with two side-by-side pairs of wheels for greater strength for carrying or towing.

Duel, it turns out, isn’t etymologically related to dual. It stems ultimately from the Latin word duellem, a variation of bellum, meaning “war.” (The latter Latin term is the origin of the root of antebellum — “before the war” — often applied to the culture of the American South before the Civil War, and of belligerent and bellicose, both of which mean “aggressive,” or “warlike.”)

Duellem acquired a meaning of one-on-one combat by the unwittingly incorrect association of it with duo. Duello, the Italian word for duel, is also a rarely used synonym in English that also refers to the traditions of dueling observed by aristocrats — counting out paces, the presence of seconds, or assistants, and so on.

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5 Responses to “Dual vs. Duel”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Huh, go figure. The exploration of words is awesome because you never know what you will find out. Thanks for sharing this, I’ll have to make it a fun fact for the boys at work today.

  • Alexandre Piccolo

    A slight correction, Mark: the Latin noun is actually “duellum, -i” (neuter of the 2nd declension) – ending in “-um”, not in “-em”.

    In fact, “duellem”, as you typed, is the first person of the present subjunctive of the verb “duello, -are, -aui, -atus”, and could be translated as “May/Would I duel/fight/combat…!”

  • thebluebird11

    I remember first HEARING the word “dually” before I ever saw it. I am originally from NYC and seriously there are no duallies there, so I never encountered the term. I moved to Florida in 1987, and saw those kinds of trucks but never knew there was a specific name for them. Then, in about 2001, I met a guy originally from Texas, and he kept talking about the duallies. Since I had never seen the word in print, in my mind I thought it was “dooley.” I had no idea why it would be called a dooley. When I finally SAW the word, I didn’t even make the association between the word and the truck! It took me years to figure it out LOL

  • Sally

    Interestingly, ‘duellum’ is the original form, cognate Sanskrit and Greek words meaning ‘to harm.’

    ‘Duellum’ (pron. ‘DWELL-um)’ > Latin ‘bellum’ sometime between c200BC (Plautus) and c50BC (Caesar) – as ‘duis – twice’ > ‘bis.’

  • Sally

    The reason that we have the word ‘duel’ is that medieval scholars knew their Plautus!

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