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Ancient Greek had agora, from which they got the verb agorevo, meaning to speak in public assembly. From this in turn they derived kategoreo, meaning to speak against someone, to accuse someone of something in public assembly, and kategoria, accusation. This all makes perfect sense.

The English word category comes from kategoria. What is the semantic link?

The Wiktionary entries uses mysterious phrases like "head of predicables" and refer to the word "predication," which was a new one to me. I don't understand how we make the semantic link. Is the idea that a logical criterion somehow "accuses" a thing of belonging to a certain class? (But "accuse" comes from a completely different Greek root, related to words like "etiology.")

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    Blame it on Aristotle: etymonline.com/word/category
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 13, 2021 at 1:25
  • @HotLicks: That should be an answer.
    – user16723
    Mar 13, 2021 at 1:27
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    This is really a question about Ancient Greek and not about English. The shift in meaning that you are asking about occurred within Ancient Greek. The word was imported into English in the sense that it has in Aristotle's writings; any other senses it and the related words may have had in Greek are not a part of its history in English.
    – jsw29
    Apr 25, 2021 at 21:54

3 Answers 3

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To start with the cata part of the word, the preposition κατα covers over a page of the minutely printed Lydell and Scott Greek Lexicon. Its complications will not help us much. In brief, though, the general notion is down, albeit confusingly both down as in from and down as in to/at. This is because the genitive case can indicate either origin or target. So kataglōttizō (καταγλωττιζω) meant either that I bad mouth someone (literally 'tonguing down/at') or that I engage in oro-lingual kissing). This is ancient not (as far as I know) modern Greek usage. So ancient Greek language usage developed as careless of strict consistency as any contemporary language has.

Looking at Lydell and Scott, katēgoreō does involve accusation, in the sense of naming before the relevant authority in, yes, the market place [agora]. The verb's object (the accused) has the genitive case, as all targets, whether of spears or of accusations, do. So Plato in the Euthyphro 2c tells his young friend that

It looks as if he <i.e. the accuser> is off to tell him < <katēgorēsōn mou (κατηγορήσων μου-genitive)> to the city as if to his mother. <note the ironic simile with a child running off to his mother to tell on another child>.

So the noun catēgoria is something which any member of a classification can be 'accused' or, in other words, called out/named. A theory of categories in essence a theory of naming. So what can we 'name/accuse' of being a dwelling: a house, bungalow, apartment, tent, yurt, igloo, set, sty, nest, old people's home, mansion, palace, hovel, .., prison,.? Well, you might quarrel with the animal 'dwellings' and whether a prison or a prison cell or the governor's residence are really dwellings. But what would be the point of a theory of categories without our being able to argue about them? In fact a central feature of Aristotle's contribution to more scientific way of thinking was his suggestion that we should define things by means of classification: We define 'dwelling' by the names of the things that are dwellings.

And what is predication if not about naming and classification. Turning to the Latin root for 'predicate', the word praedico - praedicā re, the first meaning, according to Lewis and Short's Latin dictionary is:

to cry in public, make known by crying in public, to publish, proclaim.

More generally it refers to affirming something to be true. So it is not surprising that grammar acquired the distinction between a subject (what is being talked/written about) and a predicate (what is said to be true about the subject). So the Cambridge dictionary defines it:-

in grammar, the part of a sentence that contains the verb and gives information about the subject:

This is pretty close to katēgoreō and, closer, was more generally used to mean making something known in public.

So there is a semantic connection, even if a subtle one.

In addition, you have to remember that ancient Greek had its own phonetic reasons for its morphology as does any language. In the Attic dialect of ancient Athens the final letter alpha (α), of kata, when run into the first letter alpha of of the next word, agora (αγορα), gets lengthened into eeta (η) from kata-agoreuō/κατα-αγορευōειν to katēgoreō/κατηγορεω.

So there is a link between the market place (as a talking place both for conversation and the conversations/talk/naming of government, legislation and legal prosecution. There is also a connection between the accusatory 'naming' of a person to the 'king archon' on a stated charge and the methodology of Plato's brilliant pupil, Aristotle, in establishing the naming of things as a key part of science.

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Let me know if this quotation doesn't answer your question.

category [15]

The word category has a rather complicated semantic history. It comes ultimately from Greek katēgorein ‘accuse’, a compound formed from the prefix katá- ‘against’ and agorá ‘public assembly’ (source of English agoraphobia and related to gregarious) – hence ‘speak against publicly’. ‘Accuse’ gradually became weakened in meaning to ‘assert, name’, and the derived noun katēgoríā was applied by Aristotle to the enumeration of all classes of things that can be named – hence ‘category’. The word reached English via late Latin catēgoria or French catégorie.

Word Origins (2005 2e) by John Ayto. p 98 Left column.

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  • This sounds like it was copied almost word for word, "gradually became weakened in meaning to 'assert, name'" (Ayto), "original sense of "accuse" had weakened to "assert, name"" (Harper, main source being the OED, usually, which probably relies on Meilet, a century old now and severly outdated in parts). I can't let you know what I think of this without triggering abuse filters.
    – vectory
    Dec 25, 2021 at 4:20
  • and I can tell you are greekarea. maybe doing a bit work on greek here would go forward
    – vectory
    Dec 25, 2021 at 4:24
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Some info but nothing concrete can be found at https://www.etymonline.com/word/category

In short, the sense category was borrowed all the way from Greek. The rest would be matter for Latin.SE (where Ancient Greek is handled too).

Discussion. You had probably understood as much already. This solves nothing really. There is a polysemic definition for the Greek word, that is a circular definition for the most important part, and not very illuminating about the rest for they explain further down that the cycle had apparently started with Aristotle but was never really understood--which directly contravenes and thus invalidates the introduction that tries to show an understanding of the development.

It is assumed that the Aristotelean sense "category" of kategoria had to have developed as specialization from the other meanings, "accusation, prediction" after the verb kategorein "to speak against; to accuse, assert, predicate".

The verb's original sense of "accuse" had weakened to "assert, name" by the time Aristotle applied kategoria to his 10 classes of things that can be named.

This seems shortsighted. The opposite direction is theoretically plausible, cp. to implicate sb., notwithstanding the practicle limit of finding evidence pre Aristotle.

The root "*ger- 'to gather'" reconstructed from agora "public assembly" would match that sense of category as assemblage of items under one concept.


Compare collection for example with simmilar semantics, already so in Mycenaean Greek 𐀀𐀒𐀨 (a-ko-ra) "1. collection 2. flock" (cf. wiki: agora).

A modern reconstruction is Proto-Indo-European *h2ger- instead, *h2 accounting for the a-. Initial *H leaves barely any trace elsewhere, thus the only evidence would be Greek itself. A circular argument. One cognate under this root is gaṇá in Sanskrit where it already could mean "7. (grammar) a series of roots or words following the same rule and called after the first word of the series [...])". There is also the modern Hindi for "set theory". (cf. wiki: गण)

The supposed prefix kat(a)- is notably uncertain in Harper's dictionary, to which the wiktionary has nothing much to add. Its interpretation should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt, as well as the medial a. The cognates' semantics do not exactly match either (if you follow the above link). It needs repeating that no rigid method for the reconstruction of semantics exists, such that any pledge for, say, "flock" + "down" (i.e. kata) underlying a proper noun cannot alone carry conviction. This leaves room for doubt.

Notable analogies to "assembly" exist with other roots.1. So the fact remains that a contraction would require too much guesswork in face of doubt. In that sense, the question might be a better fit for linguistics.SE if need be.

Finally, what I can say is that German kategorisch in the collocation kategorisch ablehnen "to reject summarily" continues the negative connotation alleged above. Cp. summary judgement, and for analogies sake rubrum (from the rube "red" color of a verdicts summary), protocol (from the proto "first" page attached to a file, summarizing the content), or simply set (versus Ger. Satz "sentence"). (PS: indeed it should be comprehensive that accusation can come across as prejudice and thus stereotype; A remarkable coincidence, it seems to me that categoria could become approximately stereo under Vulgar Latin sound changes, possibly even earlier; stereo- means ca. "solid; firm", akin to strong etc ).

1: Without any hope to be complete

  • *sem- "together" as in assembly itself (cp. Ger. Versammlung), which incidently reflects in a Greek prefix a- "same" (cp. Sanskrit sa-).

  • *k'om- "with" as it seems to appear in Latin comes, comitia, the analogue to the Agora in Republican Rome, also seen in Greek kai "and"

  • *ghedh- as in together, gather, gathering, Slovene *zgodovína f. "history" (maybe uncertain but cp. Serbo-Croatian zgoda "event").

    • Here it is not quite clear to me where the to- came from, though there is comparison in Ger. zusammen "together", zu erst "at first", apparently from *de-, cp. Latin de- with quite opposite semantic; There might be precedent in PIE *dʰǵʰyes- "yesterday" (cp. today, cf. *k'e- "here", cp. Lat. hanc hodie "today", Ger. heute "today") or *dk'em- "ten" (cp. *k'mt- "hundred"), *dwo- "2," (cf. *dwis- "appart, in two", *wi- "appart"); There is copious precedent for verbal suffixes from *dheh1 "do, put, place", *deH- "share, give", etc. and a more recent theory of ditropic particles (syntactically prefixed, but phonologically attached to any preceding word, which is decisive in Germanic for Verner's law at least, note s-mobile, cp. *steh2- "stand, set", systeme, histemi, cf. caste system)
  • *Ges- ("take" or "collect", if I remember correctly) ToDo.

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  • Greek sources for the sense of "accusation" are 5th century BCE (Herodotus, Thucydides), well before Aristotle used it in his sense. You seem to be making claims with no evidence: this is a site for well-referenced facts not your own theories.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 21, 2021 at 10:07
  • @StuartF I don't remember what I wrote and honestly don't want to. If I said now that German kategorisch ablehnen may be reasonably derived from the Greek sense and that a sense of prejudice, to stereotype erroded to a stereotype, categoria ... its still unsourced, but the relevant English parts are all ready, cp. categorical "uncondinatially? Wiktionary quotes: Daytime interests are clearly not such far-reaching psychical sources of dreams as might have been expected from the categorical assertions that everyone continues to carry on his daily business in his dreams ≈ typical
    – vectory
    Dec 23, 2021 at 20:44
  • @StuartF, BTW, that agora reconstructs *ger- 'to collect' might almost count as public knowledge. This seems to be most important fornmy argument and it is sourced, so I find your criticism rather unbalanced.
    – vectory
    Dec 25, 2021 at 4:16
  • Most of this answer makes no sense. Are you arguing that the word does not come from kata plus agora? That seems unlikely. Kata is used all over the place with a range of meanings. It is not just "down". Honestly the bulk of this post is unorganized rambling and stream of consciousness, all of it original research (if it can be called that).
    – siride
    Dec 26, 2021 at 14:47
  • the meaning of kata is honestly noneobvious to me. (But cp. talk + down). For all I know it means "down", but the witkionary entry for kategoria suggest "away", from kata-, and I have no reason to belive that this is from kata-. (I do see kata akin to Arabic kara "prostrate" [but I have no evidence {and you have no evidence to the opposite}])).
    – vectory
    Dec 26, 2021 at 21:55

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