From re: constructions

The word "martyr" comes originally from the ancient Greek legal term for "witness", for someone who gives testimony or evidence in a court of law.

In Arabic, "martyr" is "shaheed", and the root it comes from also means "to witness."

In English, the word "clue" has an interesting back story. From Etymonline:

The sense shift is originally in reference to the clew of thread given by Ariadne to Theseus to use as a guide out of the Labyrinth in Greek mythology. The purely figurative sense of "that which points the way," without regard to labyrinths, is from 1620s. As something which a bewildered person does not have, by 1948.

Tn Turkish, "clue" is "ipucu" which is in fact the combination of two words: "ip" + "uç" (end part of a thread/string, etc.), so it has the same kind of connection.

In both examples, I think it is unlikely that it is just a coincidence.

Is there a term for these kinds of connections? Does linguistics have a branch that focuses on these type connections?

  • 1
    The metaphors are the same in each case - all cultures have some form of witnessing and testimony, and getting killed for what you testify is not uncommon, and often fabled. And all cultures use string or yarn in many fashions and know about following a thread to the main body, and how tangled it can get. Languages don't change physical reality; they just report it. And physical reality is at the basis of our metaphors, and therefore of our language.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 16:16
  • Arabic šahīd developing a secondary meaning 'martyr' is almost certainly a semantic loan from Greek.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 22:20

2 Answers 2


This is not a branch of linguistics, in the way that historical linguistics, phonology, sociolinguistics, semantics etc. are branches. It does involve semantics (in a broad sense) and historical linguistics, as well as non-linguistic history and the historical study of texts (how did the word šahīd come to have the meaning "martyr"). Since Islam did not emerge in a complete historical and cultural vacuum, the Arabic use could easily have been influenced by Greek and Christian use. You would then do some similar deep-diving into the textual history of Turkish ipucu.

Historical linguistics is obviously relevant, since the word "martyr" does not mean "witness", meaning that there has been some kind of change in meaning. This is a change in Ancient Greek, not English – the earlier meaning of "martyr" has long since been supplanted by the special religious meaning. The modern English sense of "clue" is first attested in a poem by Michael Drayton in 1605 which presents a simile with Ariadne's thread in the Labyrinth, before which it simply meant "ball of yarn". Such literary devices are well-known in literary studies: the linguist George Lakoff has spent a lot of time making the point that metaphors are central, not peripheral, to the study of meaning (semantics). IMO, the works of cognitive linguistics (an approach, not a branch) and the works of Lakoff and Langacker are probably what you would be most interested in.


In some cases these may be semantic loans: you'd have to study the history of the words or phrases in the different languages to determine whether the metaphor or extended meaning was passed from one language to the other, or whether they appeared independently.

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