Word Triplets in the English Language

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In English grammar and morphology, triplets or word triplets are three distinct words derived from the same source but at different times and by different paths, such as place, plaza, and piazza (all from the Latin platea, a broad street). In most cases, such words have the same ultimate origin in Latin.

Captain, Chief, and Chef

The triplets won't necessarily be obvious just by looking at the words but will take a little investigation for their relationship to come clear.

"English words encode interesting and useful historical information. For example, compare the words


"All three derive historically from cap, a Latin word element meaning 'head,' which is also found in the words capital, decapitate, capitulate, and others. It is easy to see the connection in meaning between them if you think of them as 'the head of a vessel or military unit,' 'the leader or head of a group,' and the head of a kitchen' respectively. Furthermore, English borrowed all three words from French, which in turn borrowed or inherited them from Latin. Why then is the word element spelled and pronounced differently in the three words?

"The first word, captain, has a simple story: the word was borrowed from Latin with minimal change. French adapted it from Latin in the 13th century, and English borrowed it from French in the 14th. The sounds /k/ and /p/ have not changed in English since that time, and so the Latin element cap- /kap/ remains substantially intact in that word.

"French did not borrow the next two words from Latin...French developed from Latin, with the grammar and vocabulary being passed down from speaker to speaker with small, cumulative changes. Words passed down in this way are said to be inherited, not borrowed. English borrowed the word chief from French in the 13th century, even earlier than it borrowed captain. But because chief was an inherited word in French, it had undergone many centuries of sound changes by that time...It was this form that English borrowed from French.

"After English borrowed the word chief, further changes took place in French...Subsequently English also borrowed the word in this form [chef]. Thanks to the linguistic evolution of French and the English propensity to borrow words from that language, a single Latin word element, cap-, which was always pronounced /kap/ in Roman times, now appears in English in three very different guises." (Keith M. Denning, Brett Kessler, and William R. Leben, "English Vocabulary Elements," 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2007)

Hostel, Hospital, and Hotel

"Another example [of triplets] is 'hostel' (from Old French), 'hospital' (from Latin), and 'hotel' (from modern French), all derived from the Latin hospitale." (Katherine Barber, "Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do With Pigs." Penguin, 2007)

Similar but From Different Sources

The resulting English triplets might not even look similar, depending on the route they took to get to English.

  • "The simultaneous borrowing of French and Latin words led to a highly distinctive feature of modern English vocabulary: sets of three items (triplets), all expressing the same fundamental notion but differing slightly in meaning or style, e.g., kingly, royal, regal; rise, mount, ascend; ask, question, interrogate; fast, firm, secure; holy, sacred, consecrated. The Old English word (the first in each triplet) is the most colloquial, the French (the second) is more literary, and the Latin word (the last) more learned." (Howard Jackson and Etienne Zé Amvela, "Words, Meaning and Vocabulary: An Introduction to Modern English Lexicology." Continuum, 2000)
  • "Still more remarkable is the fact that there are in our language words that have made three appearances—one through Latin, one through Norman-French, and one through ordinary French. These seem to live quietly side by side in the language, and no one asks by what claim they are here. They are useful; that is enough. These triplets are—regal, royal, and real; legal, loyal, and leal; fidelity, faithfulness, and fealty. The adjective real we no longer possess in the sense of royal, but Chaucer uses it...Leal is most used in Scotland, where it has a settled abode in the well-known phrase 'the land o' the leal.'" (J.M.D. Meiklejohn, "The English Language, Its Grammar, History, and Literature." 12th ed. W.J. Gage, 1895)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Word Triplets in the English Language." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/triplets-words-1692477. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Word Triplets in the English Language. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/triplets-words-1692477 Nordquist, Richard. "Word Triplets in the English Language." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/triplets-words-1692477 (accessed June 4, 2023).