“Species” and Its Descendants

By Mark Nichol

An assortment of diverse words stem from the Latin word species, which had two distinct meanings, one of which is “a particular kind, sort, or type”—the pertinent sense for the following terms.

special: This word, coming into English from Old French, originally meant “better than ordinary” but later acquired the additional senses of “marked by a distinguishing quality” and “limited in function, operation, or purpose”; the noun specialist carries the latter connotation in describing someone with a narrow set of skills. The variant especial, taken from an Old French term meaning “important” or “preeminent”—treated in Modern French as spécial—originally had the same meaning as special but later acquired the additional senses of “particular” and “peculiar,” as well as “intimate.” The adverbial form, especially, is now much more common than the adjectival form.

specie: This technical term for coins, as opposed to paper currency, stems from the phrase “in specie,” meaning “in the actual or real form,” which in turn derives from an identical-looking phrase in Latin that means “in kind.” (The notion is that coins actually have monetary value, whereas paper currency merely represents such value.)

species: Species denotes a distinct type of life-form, but this biological sense was preceded by multiple now-rare connotations such as “appearance,” “notion,” and “resemblance.” Originally, it was associated with a classification in logic.

specific: This word, meaning “particular,” “precise,” or “special,” is an antonym of generic, just as, in biology, a species is more, well, specific than a genus. (Like species and specific, genus and generic are related.)

specious: This term has undergone the most deviation from its original sense, which is “fair” or “pleasing.” (It stems indirectly from the Latin word species by way of speciosus, which means “good-looking” or “beautiful.”) Now, it pertains to superficial attractiveness or false validity or value.

spice: This unexpected descendant of special, which denotes plant products used to season foods, derived from a later sense of species in Latin of “goods or wares,” pertaining to spices as a commodity. The additional, centuries-old, figurative sense of “something that provides relish or zest” survives, but the meanings “sample” and “trace” do not.

The second sense of the Latin term species, derived from the verb specere, is discussed in this post.

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