Let the buyer beware !

Bill Casselman

At the Wording Desk

Caveat emptor !

One of the Latin phrases commonly known by literate English speakers and writers is: caveat emptor ‘let the buyer beware.’ Less known are some of the other English derivatives of the Latin verb emo, emere, emi, emptus ‘to purchase, to buy.’

For example, to pre-empt (either with or without the hyphen as preempt) ‘to take action to prevent something from happening.’ The governor’s mollifying speech pre-empted a riot by the prisoners. But the most common current meaning of pre-empt is ‘to replace one television show by another’: News of the landing on Mars pre-empted all the regularly scheduled programs.

The original sense of pre-empt was ‘to buy something before anyone else has a chance to buy it,’ from classical Latin prepositional prefix prae- or pre- ‘before, in front of’ + emere ‘to buy, to purchase.’ Pre-empt was not known to ancient Romans but was made up out of Latin roots by English speakers in the middle of the 19th century.

There is, of course, an agent noun pre-emptor ‘one who or that which pre-empts.’

Not Empty
Disambiguation: Our English adjective empty is NOT derived from Latin. Empty is an adjectival form, much altered, derived from an Old English noun ǣmetta ‘leisure, freedom,’ and empty’s first sense belonged solely to a person and meant ‘at leisure, free, not occupied.’ The excrescent p after m further obscures the true root but was a not uncommon infix used to ease and speed up the pronunciation of certain English words. If such an insertion removed the need for a time-consuming, enunciation-pausing glottal stop in the midst of a word, then it was all the more readily added.

Later in the history of our language the word empty broadened its semantic scope and came to be applied to objects, giving the term its current modern use “The cows were in the field and so the barn was empty.”

This word is still active in English law, in a contractual phrase like ‘right of sole emption’ which assigns the unique privilege of selling something to a specific person or entity. The word’s root is classical Latin emptio, emptionis ‘act of buying, deed of purchase.’

Redeem & Redemption
Redemption too began with a legal sense which it maintains. Redemption was the right at law to buy back something you had sold. Its roots are Latin redemptiō redemptiōnis = prefix re- ‘again, yet, still’ + euphonic d + emere ‘to buy.’ To the ancient Romans a redemption might be ‘purchase of a contract’ or ‘a ransom’ or ‘a bribe to a Roman official to change a guilty verdict.’ Later, in the virtuous and holy times of the Roman Catholic Church, redemptio was the act of forking over some sesterces (money) to a priest or bishop to receive paid forgiveness of your sins.

To redeem had a prime meaning in Late Latin (redimere), Old French (redemer) and early English of: to be delivered by God or Christ from the stain of sin --- should the sinner have the scratch to pay off the priest.

To conclude, I’ll return to caveat emptor ‘let the buyer beware.’ The Latin verb is: caveo, cavere, cavi, cautus ‘to take heed, to be careful, to beware.’ As you can see its past participle cautus bequeaths to English words like precaution and caution.

Barking & Biting

Even the ancient Romans owned yappy mutts. Thus archaeologists have found carved into the sides of stone walls facing old Roman streets the warning: cave canem ‘beware the dog.’  

Caveat Predator !

Finally here are two useable variations on caveat emptor. You might headline a review of a very bad book: caveat lector ‘let the reader beware!’ There are in English more than 1,000 agent nouns ending in –tor, words borrowed from Latin. How about an anti-Donald Trump sign to use during a rally for civilized people caveat apex predator ‘let he who ruthlessly preys on all others beware!’

Bill Casselman, Sept 19, 2016

Copyright 2016 William Gordon Casselman

If you wish to send me corrections or suggestions, please return to the home page of this website and kindly complete the contact form.


Sample My Brand-New Book! Just Published!
If you like these word essays, my new book "At the Wording Desk" contains 94 new essays never-before published.
400 pages, paperback under $18.00 USD

Check it out at Trafford Publishing.
Just click

Go to the bookstore and type in the title of my book in the upper right-hand search box: "At the Wording Desk."

Sample 4 chapters free at amazon.com

does NOT offer any free chapters to read.

At Amazon, type the title of my book into the search box at the top of the page, that is "At the Wording Desk."

Increase your English vocabulary by learning the word root shared by redeem, pre-empt, emption and caveat emptor