Category Archives: Wonderful Words

The strange (and slightly tipsy) history of ‘training’

Susie Dent's Wonderful Words

The word ‘train’ has led a complicated life, one that has taken in tractors, cloaks, grapevines and royal processions. It all began, like so much else in English, with the Romans, whose Latin trahere meant to ‘pull’ or ‘draw’. The past participle of the same verb was tractus, which hides behind both the ‘pulling’ vehicles that are tractors and the tracts of land they cover, as well as contracts (which draw together arrangements), and extracts (in which something is ‘drawn out’). In sartorial matters, that same, highly versatile Latin word also gave us ‘train’: the trailing part of a skirt, gown or cloak that was dragged across the ground as the wearer moved. From this sense of something being pulled along came the idea of a series or procession of things – a royal retinue perhaps, or a locomotive and the cars coupled to it, or even a figurative train of thought.

It takes some leap of the imagination to go from this sense of ‘dragging’ to the modern training we experience today (even if, on occasions, time can seem to slow down a little). There is a link, however – in the 14th century, to ‘train’ a vine was to draw it out and manipulate it into a desired form – we talk of ‘training’ our roses to this day. This idea of ‘shaping’ something eventually gave rise to our modern business use of training, which aims to mould our minds and equip us for a particular task.

Good training, of course, may require a mentor – a word we inherited from the ancient Greeks, for whom Mentor was an adviser to the young Telemachus in Homer’s epic Odyssey. An effective mentor will always monitor progress, but monitoring wasn’t always so benevolent – it comes from the Latin monere, to ‘warn’, and its siblings include ‘admonish’ and ‘monster’.

All of which might lead you to seek cover in a ‘symposium’, a formal discussion or conference. Or at least, to seek out its earliest incarnation, for in ancient Greece symposia were convivial discussions held after a banquet, and involved copious amounts of wine. Which explains why the word ‘symposium’ is from the Greek sumposion, ‘drinking party’. Now, if we’re looking for ideas, that kind of training might be an even bigger pull.

Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the Society for Editors and ProofreadersWonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.