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Q From Ali Bickford in Germany: The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day today (11 February 2000) is the noun retort, a vessel used for distillation. Did the other sense of the word retort, as in a sharp reply, come from this one, or from somewhere else?

A They do have the same origin, the Latin torquere, a verb meaning to twist. (We owe several other words to the same source, such as torment, torture, torque, extort, and torsion, all of which have in them the idea of something being twisted). The distillation vessel was so called because it had a curved or spiral neck with which to condense the vapour, a device that was therefore re-twisted — retorta in Latin. The other sense implied a reply that was likewise twisted, a sharp rejoinder to some comment that was returned to the original speaker. It seems to have been first used by Shakespeare, in As You Like It, though it became common only in the nineteenth century.

Page created 19 Feb. 2000

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Last modified: 19 February 2000.