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In a monarchical state a subject is "one that is placed under authority or control" (Merriam). If A is subject to B, A is figuratively beneath B. This meaning makes sense with the word's roots of under and throw (again, Merriam; quotation below*).

In grammar, though, the subject, as we all know, acts. (Yes, the grammar structure can be passive so that semantically the subject is not active; even still the subject performs the verb, which in a passive structure, is to receive the action.) It has agency. It is the noun (or noun phrase) doing the throwing under and doing the subjecting, not being thrown under or being subjected.

How did subject develop such seemingly opposed meanings? It can certainly make reading lit theory confusing.

*Middle English suget, subget, from Anglo-French, from Latin subjectus one under authority & subjectum subject of a proposition, from masculine & neuter respectively of subjectus, past participle of subicere to subject, literally, to throw under, from sub- + jacere to throw

  • It comes from Latin, where it was probably a translation of some Greek grammatical term, so there's been a lot of time for shifts in meaning. – sumelic Oct 24 '15 at 17:22
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    The OED Online says "(iii) post-classical Latin subiectum (neuter) topic, theme, (in philosophy) central substance or core of a thing as opposed to its attributes (4th cent.), (in grammar) part of a sentence of which the rest of the sentence is predicated (5th cent.), uses as noun of past participle of classical Latin subicere [...] The senses at Branch II. [sic] ultimately reflect (via post-classical Latin subiectum) Aristotle's use of ancient Greek τὸ ὑποκείμενον in the threefold sense of (1) material out of which things are made, (2) subject of attributes, (3) subject of predicates." – sumelic Oct 24 '15 at 17:25
  • So I guess the subject is "subjected" to the predicate. The greek word is defined on Wiktionary, and it seems to have already had much of the range of meaning of the English and Latin words, although there's not much discussion of what motivated its use by Aristotle. But I guess you can blame him. – sumelic Oct 24 '15 at 17:26
  • Hmm. I'm not sure why this question was downvoted (it wasn't me) but if I had to guess, someone thinks that you didn't show enough of your research. I'd advise just editing the question to add a citation to whatever dictionary you looked at to learn about the origins (you talk about the roots of under and throw, but where did that information come from?). – sumelic Oct 24 '15 at 17:40
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    I don't remember where I read this but I do remember learning that for the Greeks, the verb was the main item of interest in a sentence and the subject was the thing being affected by it. The subject was compelled to do something by the verb. – michael_timofeev Oct 24 '15 at 23:34
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Subject: the person or thing that performs the action or incorporates the action expressed by the verb, or is in the condition indicated by the verb. While it seems the subject initiates the action (especially with transitive verbs) the verb requires a "subject" to carry out or perform the action, hence the "subject" is submitting to the "verb" or let's say, "predicate".

  • I was criticized earlier of lacking sources, but now I'm turning to do the same. I really like this theory because it maintains consistent meaning for the word, unlike @sumeric's answer. Sumeric, though, has some evidence on his side. Do you have examples or linguistic theory that treats the subject as "submitting to the 'verb'"? – Unrelated Oct 24 '15 at 23:10
  • @Unrelated: I don't see how this conflicts with the citation I found. As I said, Aristotle probably had some reason for using the word "hupokeimai," which etymologically means something like "the under-lier," to mean "grammatical subject." This answer seems to be an attempt the explain the reason. – sumelic Oct 24 '15 at 23:36
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The idea of the term subject in grammar is that which is placed under something. Object means that which is placed on top of something. If you see the verb of a sentence as the central word the subject is placed under the verb and the object is placed on top of the verb.

So you get a model of the sentence structure where the sentence parts are arranged like bricks in form of a tower and not as we are used to see sentence parts. We would arrange the sentence parts in a line from left to right.

The Latin terms were probably influenced by views of Greek grammarians. Personally I don't find the tower model bad. Another question: What optimal terms could one invent for subject and object? I think the best and simplest terms would be: Subject is the who/what indication of the verb (nominative) and object the whom/what indication (accusative). Unfortunately the terms nominative and accusative are no longer very helpful in English because the two cases have the same form (with the exception of some pronouns). In English these two cases are distinguished by position, before or after the verb in normal sentences of statement.

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