There are words in the English language that we, frankly, just mix up.

 Word Nerd, at your service.


Complement comes from the Latin complere, for which the trusty Webster’s New World College Dictionary sends me to the word “complete.” Com-, in this case, is used to intensify the Latin plere, “to fill,” making it mean “to fill really, really full, all the way up.” Short, sweet roller coaster ride from Latin through Middle English and French to English.

Now the dictionary sends me to the word “full.”  But “full” and “complete” are nothing alike, you say? Take a deep breath, the roller coaster ride’s starting over!
The Romans got the words plere (to fill) and plenus (full) from the Indo-European pel. The Goths and the Germans took pel and turned into fulls and passed it along to English as “full,” and also “fulfill.”

The same root took two different paths into English. And kept the same meaning on both paths.

Fascinating! A double-roller coaster ride!

And both roller coaster tracks mean “to fill up,” which is exactly what happens when things—or people—complement—each other. When two angles together make a right angle, they are complementary angles; they fill up the 90-degree angle. When two people complement each other, they work together, boosting each other’s strengths and filling up each other’s weaknesses.


 Now, onto our word compliment, which comes from the Latin—uh-oh. It comes from the Latin complere, “to fill up.” As in, filling up someone’s ego. As in the same complere that gave us complement, with an e.

 And I thought I was going to come up with a unique way to help you remember when to use complement and when to use compliment. But I don’t want to leave you stranded, so how about this: See the letter “i” in the middle of compliment? You use that word when you are saying something “I like” about someone else.

 Weak? Sorry.

 Sometimes the Word Nerd fails.

 But, we did have that cool ride on the double roller-coaster, so it was worth the trip!

WORD NERD CHALLENGE OF THE WEEK: First of all, to take care of business: Meghan Card won last week’s Word Nerd challenge, by far and away, on both vonildawrites and its sister blog at Thanks, Meghan. Check out her winning list of words coming from spire, in the comment section.

Now for this week’s challenge: The Goth-German path of the root pel led to “full” and “fulfill.” Can you name some words that come from the Latin path (plenere/plenus)?