Fer-y Tales

I reflected this morning–my first at home in a while–that being far away working really hard is almost worth the fatigue and distance for the incredible fertility of the drives there and back– idea-fertility I mean (cf. operas, and I planned a whole textual art/crossword puzzle project on my way home last night!). I thought, “it’s odd I’d use ‘fertile’ in this context,” then thought about the agricultural use, the reproductive-system use, and then: what even is “fert”? I wondered if it was related to fer/pher which I think of as “carry” or “bring.” And I have answers to that that will curl your hair, but first: I also thought about “-ile” as a suffix. Unrelatedly,* “île” is “island” in French, so here’s what I needed to do about that before I could move on.

Certaines petites îles de la Polynésie française

Ok: Fertile.

I started in 1934 Webster’s International, as I do. Only kind of helpful, because it connects me to ferre as in “bear,” but also “produce,” and I don’t know whether this connects to the fer/pher of “Lucifer” (bringer of light) and “pheromone” (carrier of mones).


Ok but then I’m in the neighwordhood, so I look at “ferry” which I’ve always assumed to be connected to fer as in Lucifer. Bring, right? Right across the whatever. Ferry it across, carry it across. Surely.


BUT IT’S NOT! It’s connected to some other thing, this “fare” business (which…farewell, cab fare, yep, all that). Not even Latin or Greek–it’s Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, that realm. So now I just don’t know what is even true in the universe anymore. But “fertile” pointed me to “bear,” so I carry myself there.


There are 5,000 definitions as you might imagine** but let’s just look at the etymology it offers, because this is IT…this gives us the “akin to” list which is pretty bananas. And this tells me that 1934 is not going to cut it today, because I need to hear about whether the “fer” connected to “ferry” and the “fer” connected to “fertile” connected to “bear” point back to the same place. For that, I love the online etymology dictionary. Note: this dictionary likes to contextualize roots in an example; here, it uses “infer.” I bolded the important parts in case you are in a hurry here. PIE: Proto-Indo-European.

infer (v.) Look up infer at Dictionary.com1520s, from Latin inferre “bring into, carry in; deduce, infer, conclude, draw an inference; bring against,” from in- “in” (see in- (2)) + ferre “carry, bear,” from PIE *bher-(1) “to bear, to carry, to take” (cognates: Sanskrit bharati “carries;” Avestan baraiti “carries;” Old Persian barantiy “they carry;” Armenian berem “I carry;” Greek pherein“to carry;” Old Irish beru/berim “I catch, I bring forth;” Gothic bairan “to carry;” Old English and Old High German beran, Old Norse bera “barrow;” Old Church Slavonicbirati “to take;” Russian brat’ “to take,” bremya “a burden”). Sense of “draw a conclusion” is first attested 1520s.

ferry (v.) Look up ferry at Dictionary.comOld English ferian “to carry, convey, bring, transport” (in late Old English, especially over water), from Proto-Germanic *farjan “to ferry” (cognates: Old Frisian feria“carry, transport,” Old Norse ferja “to pass over, to ferry,” Gothic farjan “travel by boat”), from PIE root *per- (2) “to lead, pass over” (see port (n.1)). Related to fare (v.). Related: Ferried; ferries; ferrying.

“Fer” (-ry) and (luci-) “fer” mean the same thing and come from totally different roots! I fell out of my chair. It’s like Interstellar around here today.

So there you have it: Bearing, carrying, fruiting, ferrying. Farewell, ye bearers of newly curly hair!

*Truly, unrelatedly. “-ile” as an ending denotes “ability” and is from Latin –ilis; “île” as in “island” comes from Latin insula.

** “Bear” the animal gets its own separate entry, as it come from Proto-Germanic  “brown.” Sucks to be you, other colored bears!

Ok and just PS, have you read Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales? I’d say do it today. They are beautiful, strange, and violent, and the women are MIGHTY.

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