2. [Etymonline:] ... putare   [=]   "reckon, clear up, trim, prune, settle" (see pave)

3. [Notre Dame:] 4. think, believe, suppose, hold;
5. reckon, estimate, value;
6. clear up, settle;

7. Observe that only Etymonline broaches the definitions 'trim, prune'.

Following this comment, I am guessing that the original meaning of putare is: 1. to clean, cleanse.

But how did 1 evolve into all the disparate meanings, as quoted above?
What bigger picture or key notion connects, bestrides, or overlies all of them?

Footnote: By 'bigger picture', I mean an answer like this. Cognates to these words ending in -pute in English, exist in French (eg imputer qch à qqn) and Spanish (eg imputar).

  • 1
    If you want the meaning of a Latin verb, the entire dictionary is online.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 15:11
  • 1
    @jlawler I did read, and in fact cited, that exact page in my OP above. I know the meanings, but I don't understand how this single verb evolved to subsume all these different ones.
    – user5306
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 18:46
  • First, this happened in Latin, over 2000 years ago. Second, the example phrases and sentences in the dictionary show how it was used and what it meant in each case. What more can it be that you want to know? There is no "How?" with actual evidence; there is only "Whether?". And all those meanings were common in written Latin, just as all the meanings of (for instance) the English word fix appear in an English dictionary. Words assume new meanings as culture and language changes; all explanation is ex post facto, like astronomy. The past is not available for inspection.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 19:41
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    @jlawler Thanks. Yes, I recognise those facts. I'm just trying to understand the bigger picture, such as the one here for the English verb 'tally'.
    – user5306
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 19:43
  • πυροω ? To have a big bonfire. Very much part of the pruning process. Is that a parallel 'evolution'?
    – Hugh
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 16:45

3 Answers 3


You're actually not the first one to ask this question.

The Romans themselves had various explanations to offer. For them, the relation was clear - although they did not necessarily agree with each other. More recently distinguished latinists such as Ernout and Meillet could not rule out the possibility of two distinct homophonic roots ([[3]] - puto).

As for me, I don't have a definitive answer to this one but here are a few dots you might want to connect.

The semantic path here could in my opinion be close to the following one:

Step 0 . Putare as "to purify". The root can be traced to PIE.

N.B. putare is an ancient form; later Latin uses purifico (purus-facio) and purgo. But for now we need to work on puto.

  1. purify => as in "to refine"
    Applies to precious metals such as gold and silver. There is a reduplicative phrase in ancient Roman to emphasize purity for silver:

    argentum purum putum

    See below.

  2. purify => as in "to clean" or "to cleanse"
    Applies to wool and fleece as well.

    vellus lavare ac putare

Step 1. from purifying to trimming

  1. purify => trim/prune

This meaning of "trimming"/"pruning" is still present in present day Italian (potare gli alberi, potare i vitigni) and in derived words such as amputation.

In the Roman world, trimming and pruning is of particular importance for grapevines which are very sensitive to such diseases as mildew and mould caused by various fungi.
In order to prevent these diseases, you need to prune your vines so as to keep them well ventilated and remove the dead growth where fungi thrive.

On this particular subject you can refer to Columella - Res Rustica Book IV - passim. Plenty of advice for wine growers and usages of putare for lexicographers).

Trivia. There was even a dedicated Goddess for these pruning tasks, whose name was Puta. See this wikipedia article for the name and the hmm... putative etymology of hmm... prostitute in various Romance languages (since you heed Etymological Fallacy that's another question albeit potentially a tad controversial :-).

Step 2. from trimming to simplifying

By doing so you also simplify the structure of the plant which becomes less convoluted (a characteristic of vines in particular and vegetation in general) and easier to... grasp.

Step 3. from simplifying to accounting

Which could (note the conditional) lead to a derived or parallel meaning of "settling accounts" since there is this same idea of slowly progressing to a simplified figure (the account position) through the elimination of numerous details.
Cognates here are of course compute and computer, French compter and whence even account, Italian compiti "homework" and many others.

Step 4. from accounting to forming an opinion

The metaphor from accounting to opinion is a common one in various languages.
Even in Latin: aestumo (I estimate) originally means to assign a value and by extension to form one's opinion.
To value is a bit different because it comes from the concept of strength but Present Day Italian uses valutare as a synonym of "estimate".

Purus and Putus

As I mentioned earlier, Romans also had their opinion on that subject. Here are two examples: Varro who writes in Caesar's time has this to offer in his book de Lingua Latina (an early "etymological" Latin "dictionary") on the "dispute" entry:

  1. Disputatio et computatio cum praepositione a putando quod valet purum facere. Ideo antiqui purum putum appellarunt; ideo putator, quod arbores puras facit, ideo ratio putari dicitur, in qua summa sit pura. Sic is sermo in quo pure disponuntur verba, ne sit confusus atque ut diluceat, dicitur disputare.

  2. Disputatio ‘discussion’ and computatio ‘reckoning,’ from the general idea of putare, which means to make purum ‘clean’; for the ancients used putum to mean purum. Therefore putator ‘trimmer’, because he makes trees clean; therefore a business account is said putari ‘to be adjusted,’ in which the sum is pura ‘net.’ So also that discourse in which the words are arranged pure ‘neatly,’ that it may not be confused and that it may be transparent of meaning, is said disputare ‘to discuss’ a problem or question.

See also Gellius 7.5

ALFENUS iureconsultus, Servii Sulpicii discipulus rerumque antiquarum non incuriosus, in libro Digestorum tricesimo et quarto, Coniectaneorum autem secundo: In foedere, inquit, quod inter populum Romanum et Carthaginienses factum est, scriptum invenitur ut Carthaginienses quotannis populo Romano darent certum pondus 'argenti puri puti,' quaesitumque est quid esset 'purum putum.' Respondi, inquit, ego 'putum' esse 'valde purum,' sicut novum ' novicium' dicimus et proprium ' propicium,' augere atque intendere volentes ' novi' et ' proprii' significationem.
Verbum quoque ipsum puto, quod declarandae sententiae nostrae causa dicimus, non significat profecto aliud quam id agere nos in re dubia obscuraque, ut decisis amputatisque falsis opinionibus, quod ideatur esse verum et integrum et incorruptum retineamus.

The jurist Alfenus, a pupil of Servius Sulpicius and a man greatly interested in matters antiquarian, in the thirty-fourth book of his Digests and the second of his Miscellanies, says: . In a treaty which was made between the Roman people and the Carthaginians the provision is found, that the Carthaginians should pay each year to the Roman people a certain weight of argenti puri puti, and the meaning of puri puti was asked. I replied, he says, that putus meant very pure,' just as we say novicius for novus (new) and propicius for proprius (proper), when we wish to augment and amplify the meaning of novus and proprius.
The verb puto itself also, which we use for the purpose of stating our opinion, certainly means nothing else than that in an obscure and difficult matter we do our best, by cutting away and lopping off false views, to retain what seems true and pure and sound.

More Online Sources

[[1]] Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary "puto" on Perseus.

Some offline sources

[[2]] 1968 - Oxford Latin Dictionary
[[3]] 2001 - Alfred Ernout, Alfred Meillet - Dictionnaire Etymologique de la Langue Latine - 4e ed.
[[4]] 2008 - de Vaan - Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages

P.S. If you find this answer to difficult to understand because it has too much detail, you probably need to trim it... QED :)

  • +1. Thank you effusively for your detail! I wish that I benefited from your wisdom!
    – user5306
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 20:47

Id also like to point out something that illustruous predecessors forgot to mention. In Latin its common (like in English and German!) to take a verbale root (puto, fero,...) and prepend prepositions which slightly alter the word: computo, discuto, adputo, abputo (which probably evoluzione ed in amputation).. Like for the famous fero you have aufero, affero, infero, obfero, infero, praefero,... Italian and German have the same praefix meccanismo today, while English used detailed particles to do the same (get by, get on, get up,...). Being a single word make it easier to mutate in spectacular ways over the centuries.


According to philosopher Alan Watts (e.g., in a talk "Man in the Trap" (ca. 1970) the word "putare" (and "puta") are related to both "to consider," and to eliminate (as in defecation).

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    ..though I am certainly mystified that "Puta" in Spanish apparently means "prostitute."...and I've witnessed "low-life" individuals insulting others by referring to them using this term. Commented May 13, 2018 at 8:39
  • Puta means girl in latin. Putain is old and current french for girl and later slut, due to its inarticulate and short sound, it gained an inarticulate meaning... Putana is the more polite form of puta. Note that all the rude words in languages are short punctuated syllables, usually one syllable long and that can be uttered with a single powerful exhalation and very fast. Go through a list of rude words to examing their commin length and construction. all have one vowel. in french you shouldnt say PUT! to a girl. written "pute". putasse, putain, pétasse. same root. Commented May 13, 2018 at 10:02
  • In Latin, putā- means "to consider" but more literally "to clean". It comes from the adjective putus "pure", doublet of pūrus. Puta, noun, means "girl", and this one became obscene in Romance.
    – Draconis
    Commented May 13, 2018 at 16:16
  • Appreciate the replies. Yes, about the prepositions...as in dispute, putatory, compute...confute (?) And, how ODD that a word related to cleaning can end up having some very disreputable (Ha!) connotations! Commented May 14, 2018 at 20:07

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