The Joy of Language Learning

Words We Found Upon Digging Up The Soil.

The dictionary defines soil as the upper layer of earth that can be dug or ploughed and in which plants grow. But for a soldier it is a sacred chalice that they fill with their blood. For toddlers, it is something that settles on their faces as they roll and play in it, magnifying their smile and bringing out their earthen beauty until their mothers drag them back to their homes for a bath for the 5th time that day. Whatever your ideal definition of soil might be, its contribution to our vocabulary is something most of us are ignorant of. So let us try to right this wrong.

Image Credit: LUM3N from Pixabay

The Latin word for soil is humus. It is one of those purely Latin words that can still be found in dictionaries and now refers to the uppermost layer of soil that is made up of decaying and decomposed plant and animal matter. When prefixed with ex- (Latin for ‘out of’) the word exhume is formed which means to remove from the soil or take out something buried beneath it. It can also be used figuratively to mean the removal of something from a collection as in ‘He has been trying to exhume some old records from the archive.”.

Humus’ cousin, the Latin word humilis, meant lowly (literal meaning of it being ‘on the ground’). Thus, its derivative, humiliate, originally meant to lower someone’s position. In the present time, however, to humiliate someone means to make them feel ashamed or hurt their dignity.

A word with similar roots but vastly different in meaning is humility which means the modesty or the lack of pride. It is quite nicely summed up in the words of the author C.S. Lewis:

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.”

C.S. Lewis

Humilis also inspired the term humble (not arrogant or assertive). Earlier, the word used to carry the sense of being of a low birth or status. This sense can still be felt at places. For instance, when we say that Dhirubhai Ambani was a man of humble origins who went on to build one of India’s largest industrial empires, it means that he was not born into a wealthy family yet managed to achieve success. While the word now carries a positive connotation, someone too humble is seen as being meek or lacking in self-assertion.

Dhirubhai Ambani
Dhirubhai Ambani
Image Credit: Wajid Khan/ Flickr

The idiom ‘eat humble pie’ might make you think that it too is a derived in a similar fashion but that is not so. It comes from ‘umble pie’ where umble meant the entrails of animals which was considered an inferior food.

The verb soil, which means to make dirty, was derived from the Old French term soillier which meant to splatter with mud, to foul or make dirty.

Image Credit: Michael Gaida from Pixabay

The negative connotation associated with ‘soiled’ resulted in the birth of the term sully (defame; damage the purity of something). When someone’s name is sullied, their reputation is tainted or destroyed. When prefixed with un- (not), we get unsullied which refers to something which has not been spoilt or made impure. Thus, an unsullied reputation is one that is clean and untarnished. In a similar vein is the term slur which meant thin or fluid mud but now signifies insulting and derogatory remarks.

Here’s a quick summary of the words mentioned here. Read them and then try the quiz.

Table Summary:

HumusTop most layer of soil
ExhumeTo take out something from the soil
HumiliateTo make someone feel ashamed or hurt their dignity
HumilityModesty; Lack of pride
Soil(n.) The top layer of the earth’s surface.
(v.) To make something dirty.
SullyTo tarnish someone’s reputation.
Un-SulliedClear or untarnished.
SlurA disparaging or insulting remark.

Welcome to your Soiled Words

The topmost layer of soil is known as:

What does "humiliated" mean here?


The pirates tried to ______________ the heavy treasure chest (take out from the ground):

Treasure Chest
Treasure Chest
Image Credit: anncapictures/ Pixabay

The quality of being modest or lacking pride:

The word "slur" here means:


His character has remained remarkably _______________ for someone in politics. (untarnished):

When he returned, his clothes were _____________ with dirt (made dirty):

"Humble" in the given headline means:


Click on the image below to be redirected to the crossword page:

Soil Gird


2. A disparaging comment

5. To destroy one’s reputation

6. Being modest

7. Take out of the ground


1. To shame or hurt their dignity

3. A clean or untarnished reputation

4. Top layer of the soil that contains organic components

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