McWhorter, J. PhD Linguistics (Stanford). The Power of Babel (2003). p. 32 Bottom.

  Semantic drift has an especially visible effect on combinations of roots and prefixes or suffixes, and this effect, too, creates important differences between a language and the one it turns into. Our French sentence’s admettez-le “ admit it” is a good example of this kind of development. Admettre is composed of ad-, a preservation of the full word or prefix for “to” in Latin, and mettre “ to put.” This verb had an ancestor in Latin, but this Latin verb admittere did not mean “ to confess,” which was conveyed with other verbs like agnoscere. Instead, the main meaning of admittere was the literal one of “ putting or sending into.” 'The “ confess” meaning of its French descendant arrived gradually by the same kind of hanging implication that created French’s have-perfect: to admit something is to give it entree into—that is, “put it into”—your acknowledged awareness. [My emboldening]

I understand that « admettre » originally signfied 'put to', but how did it generalize to: put to 'your acknowledged awareness'? The author doesn't expound.

'put to' itself doesn't suggest 'your acknowledged awareness'. One can 'put to' many other things, if this makes sense. So what narrowed 'put to' to 'your acknowledged awareness'?

1 Answer 1


I would say the Latin verb admitto had already in classical times acquired a sense fairly close to the modern French/English sense. Cf.:

"quid ego tantum sceleris admisi miser?" — Terentius, Heautontimorumenos 5, 2, 83

"Why have I, wretched one, admitted such a great crime (to myself)": by this, the exact modern sense is not intended: the admission is not a confession, it is not the expression of one's guilt in words. Instead, it is the 'letting the guilt of a crime come upon oneself'—incurring a moral debt, so to speak. It is, causing oneself to become morally blameworthy.

From this, it is probably a fairly small step to the modern French/English sense "saying that one is guilty of [a crime]". So I'm not too surprised that French admettre should have this final sense, especially considering that educated Frenchmen knew Latin: they may very well have been influenced by Latin admitto when establishing (or changing) the sense of this newly invented French word admettre. That is not to say that the author's general point doesn't stand: I'm quite willing to believe that French should have combined affixes inherited or adopted from Latin in different ways than did the Romans or other speakers and writers of Latin.

For reference, the entry (with my ellipses as "...") from Lewis & Short (see especially sense II C), so that you may follow the semantic development in classical Latin:

ad-mitto, mīsi, missum, 3, v. a. ..., orig. to send to; hence with the access. idea of leave, permission (cf.: aditus, accessus), to suffer to come or go to a place, to admit....

I. Lit.

A. In gen.: ...

B. Esp.

  1. Of those who admitted one on account of some business; and under the emperors, for the purpose of salutation, to allow one admittance or access, to grant an audience (the t. t. for this; v. admissio, admissionalis; "opp. excludere", Cic. Cat. 1, 4, 10; Plin. Pan. 48; cf. "Schwarz ad h. 1. 47, 3): ...

  2. Of a harlot: "ne quemquam interea alium admittat prorsus quam me ad se virum", Plaut. As. 1, 3, 83; Prop. 3, 20, 7.—Also of the breeding of animals, to put the male to the female (cf.: "admissarius, admissura, admissus)", ...—Also used of the female of animals, ...

  3. Admittere aliquem ad consilium, to admit one to counsel or consultation: "nec ad consilium casus admittitur", Cic. Marc. 2, 7:...—Hence: "admittere aliquem ad honores, ad officium", to admit him to, to confer on, ...

  4. Of a horse, to let go or run, to give loose reins to (cf.: remittere, immittere, less emphatic than concitare; usu. in the part. perf.): ... "Considius equo admisso ad eum accurrit", came at full speed, ...—Hence of the hair, to let it flow loosely: "admissae jubae", Ov. Am. 2, 16, 50 al.

II. Fig.

A. Of words, entreaties, etc., to permit a thing to come, to give access or grant admittance, to receive: "pacis mentionem admittere auribus", Liv. 34, 49; "so 30, 3: ...—Hence also absol.: "admittere precationem", to hear, to grant, Liv. 31, 5 Gron.; Sil. 4, 698: tunc admitte jocos, give admittance to jesting, i. e. allow it, Mart. 4, 8.—So also: "aliquid ad animum", Liv. 7, 9: "cogitationem", Lact. 6, 13, 8.—

B. Of an act, event, etc., to let it be done, to allow, permit (fieri pati, Don. ad Ter. Eun. 4, 6, 23).—...—Hence, in the language of soothsayers, t. t. of birds which give a favorable omen, = addīco, to be propitious, to favor: "inpetritum, inauguratum'st, quovis admittunt aves", Plaut. As. 2, 1, 11: ... (hence: ADMISSIVAE: aves, in Paul. ex Fest. p. 21. Müll.).—

C. Of an unlawful act, design, etc., to grant admittance to one's self; hence, become guiliy of, to perpetrate, to commit (it thus expresses rather the moral liability incurred freely; while committere designates the overt act, punishable by civil law, Herz. ad Caes. B. G. 3, 9; freq. and class.), often with a reflexive pron., in me, etc. (acc.): "me hoc delictum admisisse in me, vehementer dolet", Ter. Ad. 4, 5, 48: "ea in te admisisti quae, etc.", Cic. Phil. 2, 19, 47: "tu nihil admittes in te formidine poenae", Hor. Ep. 1, 16, 53: "admittere in se culpam", Plaut. Trin. 1, 2, 61; Ter. Phorm. 2, 1, 40: "scelera, quae in se admiserit", Lucil. 27, 5 Müll.: "quid umquam Habitus in se admisit, ut, etc.", Cic. Clu. 60, 167: "quantum in se facinus", Caes. B. G. 3, 9.—And without such reflexive pron.: "cum multos multa admĭsse acceperim", Plaut. Mil. 4, 7, 4: "quid ego tantum sceleris admisi miser?" Ter. Heaut. 5, 2, 83; so, "si Milo admisisset aliquid, quod, etc.", Cic. Mil. 23 fin.: "dedecus", id. Verr. 1, 17: "commissum facinus et admissum dedecus confitebor", id. Fam. 3, 10, 7: "tantum dedecus", Caes. B. G. 4, 25: "si quod facinus", id. ib. 6, 12: "flagitium", Cic. Clu. 128: "fraudem", id. Rab. 126: "maleficium", id. Sext. Rosc. 62: "scelus", Nep. Ep. 6: "facinus miserabile", Sall. J. 53, 7: "pessimum facinus pejore exemplo", Liv. 3, 72, 2: "tantum dedccoris", id. 4, 2; so 2, 37; 3, 59 al.

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