Twists and wrongs

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

“Wrong,” “wrist,” and “wrench” look alike: it’s a resemblance that turns out to be a family one.  These words are cousins, descended from a common and ancient root.

En ingles, "wrench" (llave) y "wrong" (incorrecto, equivocado) forman parte de una familia de palabras que tiene que ver con lo torcido. En español se usa más un grupo de palabras emparentadas con "torcer".

In English, “wrench” and “wrong” are part of an ancient Germanic family of words beginning with wr-, all related to the notion of twisting. Spanish uses a Latin root for many of these objects and concepts, one related to the legal term “tort.”

What binds them together is the notion of twisting. “Wrong” comes to English on a Scandinavian route from a Proto-Germanic (the conjectured ancestor tongue of the family that includes German, Dutch, Danish, English, and others) root, *wrang- and long before that from Proto-Indo-European *wrengh- (to turn).

What’s wrong, then, is twisted.  Its opposite, “right,” comes from Latin rectus (straight). Colloquiallisms confirm the pair: a criminally dishonest person is “crooked,” a “crook,” while a “straight arrow” is honest and truthful speech is “straight up.”

A moral distinction, expressed aesthetically and geometrically.

Some descendants of wr-: “wrist” a body part that twists, “wrench” a tool for twisting, “wrinkle” twisted skin, “wry” mouth twisted in a half-smile; “wring” to squeeze by twisting; “writhe” to twist and turn in pain.

Spanish and its Romance relatives tend to express this sense through Latin roots for turning and twisting.  Spanish tuerto means “one-eyed,” French tort gave us the word for a civil wrong, The spinning lathe is Spanish torno. The root in distorsión is easily spotted—Latin tortus has influenced English too. “Torque” is an engine’s rotating force.

The ghastliest descendant of this family names the unspeakable act of inflicting physical or mental pain on someone who is completely under one’s power: the sadly not-extinct “torture.”

Copyright ©2014 by Pablo J. Davis. All rights reserved.

Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an Certified Translator (ATA/American Translators Association) eng>spa and a Certified Interpreter (Tennessee State Courts) eng<>spa, as well as a recognized trainer in the fields of translation, interpreting, and cultural competence. An earlier version of this column appeared in the Dec. 21-27, 2014 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as part of the weekly bilingual column Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation/Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción.  

About Pablo Julián Davis
Pablo J. Davis is an attorney, historian, and translator. Many of the posts or essays here began as entries in the newspaper column “MIsterios y Enigmas de la Traducción/Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation” (published weekly in La Prensa Latina,, since July 2012).

One Response to Twists and wrongs

  1. Pingback: Lo torcido y lo derecho | Interfluency: Translation+Culture

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