Word Nerd: Playing Base

inigo-bass

Today’s Word Nerd topic is a pair of words with several definitions and too many pronunciations. We’ll look at all the permutations of base and bass.

Base: (as a noun) the bottom support of anything; that on which a thing stands or rests; a fundamental principle or groundwork; foundation; in architecture, the distinctively treated portion of a column or pier below the shaft or shafts; in chemistry, any of a class of compounds that form hydroxyl ions (OH) when dissolved in water, and whose aqueous solutions react with acids to form salts.

(as an adjective) morally low; without noble personal qualities; dishonorable; mean-spirited; selfish; cowardly; of little or no value; worthless; debased or counterfeit; characteristic of or befitting an inferior person or thing.

(as a verb) to place or establish on a foundation.

Bass (rhymes with base): low in pitch; of the lowest pitch or range; the lowest part in harmonic music; a low voice, singer, or instrument.

Bass (rhymes with class): a fish of the perch family; wood of the linden tree.

All-your-bassBase, meaning “bottom, foundation, pedestal,” is from the early 1300s; it comes from the Old French bas “depth,” which comes from the Latin basis, meaning “foundation,” which came from the Greek basis “step, pedestal,” from bainein “to step.” The chemical sense was introduced in French by French chemist Guillaume-François Rouelle in 1754, and migrated to English by 1810. The figurative use of base to mean “of low moral character” first appears in the early 1500s.

Bass (low tone) comes to English in the mid-1400s, adopted from the Italian basso, which is derived from the Late Latin bassus “short, low.” It was often spelled “base” in the early years.

Bass (freshwater fish) is from the early 1400s, a corruption of Old English bærs “a fish, perch,” from the Proto-Germanic bars- meaning “sharp.” It’s similar to the German Barsch “perch,” and barsch “rough,” from the Proto-Indo-European root word bhar- “point, bristle.” The fish was so called for its dorsal fins. The ‘r’ was dropped in much the same way that Americans dropped the ‘r’ in arse.

If you say that Lou Gehrig played first bass, you’re saying he was in a band.
If you say that Paul McCartney played base, you’re saying he was a baseball player.

This is Word Nerd #57; you can find all the Word Nerd installments in the Word Nerd Index.

Jim MacQuarrie is a comics and animation geek, a professional cartoonist and graphic designer, professional balloon animal twister, a certified archery instructor (and yes, his arrows are green), former homeless person and occasional gadfly. He has three children who are all grown up, and an incredibly patient wife who is waiting for him to do likewise. Together they co-write the lifestyle blog Blue Collar, Black Tie.