Insidious Intent: “J. Alfred Prufrock” as an Etymological Map


You may have heard that a lot of English words come from French. That’s interesting in theory, but what would it actually look like if you could see it?

What if you could see linguistic influences in colors, like an etymologist with synaesthesia?

I started to wonder about this and also wondered what would happen if this line of thought were applied to a stanza of the T.S. Eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Not for any particular reason—it was just an idea. But the results turned out to be quite interesting for several reasons, as you can see below.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain halfdeserted streets
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in onenight cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oystershells
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

♣ Old/Middle English (62) 
♦ Old Norse influence (1)
♥ French influence (11) 
♠ Frenchy/late-Latiny? It’s complicated (4)

So, I’m not an etymologist, but I’ve done my best here to verify each of these with multiple online sources, including Merriam-Webster. I was initially mainly interested in which English words in the stanza had French origins and which Germanic, so I didn’t try to catalogue the ties between Old English and Latin or Greek origin words. The above isn’t meant to be exhaustive, just pretty.

The biggest annoyance here is that some sources disagree on whether words entered English via late Latin or through Anglo-French. Even seeing which words might have come direct from late Latin is interesting, though.

I suspect the color-coding itself and preconceptions of the various origin languages may “color” the stanza after the fact, but it’s still interesting to look at.


A few funny and/or interesting observations:

  • Yes, “restaurant,” “oyster” and “argument” are all of French origin, but you could have already guessed that.
  • If counting each word as equally weighted, words of French origin make up approximately 14% of the stanza as a whole, but exactly 50% of line-enders.
  • “Insidious” may have snuck its way into the English language directly from the Latin insidiosus, which comes from insidiae (meaning “ambush”), which comes from insidēre (meaning “sit on” or “occupy”). In any case, there’s no known use of the word until the mid-16th century. It’s almost like it was just sitting there, lying in wait.

(full poem at Project Gutenberg with other work of Eliot’s)